Employees are as unique as snowflakes on a ski hill, but while variety abounds in personality, preference, and performance, the necessity of providing employees with feedback is ubiquitous. It’s no wonder that performance conversations are often the most difficult part of management.
Performance conversations cannot be formulaic. The range of employee receptibility to feedback as well as the variety of circumstances that necessitate feedback eliminate a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, managers must create an environment where corrective feedback is accepted and positive feedback is frequent. Employees who are only recognized with criticism or correction will quickly feel defeated, and those who require no correction will feel forgotten and unappreciated. Be sure to recognize the good! With that said, the below tips can be used by managers to carry out both corrective and complimentary feedback conversations.
(Remember, when we talk about performance conversations, we aren’t talking about end-of-year formal performance reviews; but rather about frequent, informal feedback conversations.)
Let’s dive in:
1. Get buy-in
Employees often get anxious when their manager asks to speak with them, even if they have a good rapport. Ease your employee into a more open mindset by inviting them to be receptive to feedback using what LeeAnn Renniger calls the “micro-yes”. Begin your conversation by allowing the employee to agree to move forward with a simple, inviting yes/no question. For example, you might say: “That meeting got a little heated, can we talk about how that discussion went?” Or, “I have some ideas on how we can improve this process, can I share them with you?” These questions give a measure of autonomy to the employee and mentally prepare them for feedback.
2. Be specific
Have you ever had someone tell you that you are “great to work with,” or that you “did such an outstanding job” on a project? Or perhaps been on the receiving end of constructive comments such as “you could be less blunt” or be “more of a team player.” Phrases like these may allow the bearer of bad news to avoid getting into gritty details, but at the end of the day, these vague expressions are just plain unhelpful.
Pointing out specific actions will ensure you can back up your overall impression of an employee when you make an observation. Employees need factual statements, not ones that can be misinterpreted. This looks like: “Thank you so much for helping to clean up after the event, I know it is not part of your typical job but it meant a lot to us to have extra support.” Or perhaps, “Yesterday was the deadline for our project, but you waited until today to ask for an extension. That can’t happen again moving forward.”
3. Explain the effects
How did their actions affect you or the company as a whole? Describing impact drives home the importance of their work on the team and in the organization. This might look like this: “Thanks to your efforts on this project, we really impressed the client and they responded positively to using our services in the future. They were particularly happy with this section, which you worked on directly…” Or on the corrective feedback side: “Because you reacted with anger in this situation, the team was unable to continue collaborating with that department and we had to delay the completion deadline.” Sharing the effects directly related to specific instances contextualizes employee behavior to the bigger picture.
4. Don’t focus on one-off events
Earlier we told you to be specific, so this may sound contradictory, but specific events should not be used to describe an employee in general. Managers should try not to judge an employee’s character or work ethic from one or two mistakes. There is a tendency in performance conversations to focus on the most recent instance of a behavior and use that to drive a performance conversation, but we need to instead focus on patterns. As Jennifer Porter notes, focusing on patterns eliminates recency bias that can be harmful for an employee’s overall growth.
5. Timing is important
It might take some practice, but you should learn when something needs to be addressed right away and when it can wait until a more formal review. Ask yourself, what behaviors can be brought up in a routine one-on-one and what needs to have a more pointed, scheduled meeting. Time feedback appropriately so that employees are not bombarded with too many behaviors to change at once. Come up with a few goals for improvement at a time, or recognize your employee for a few things they should continue doing because they are already handling them well. This is the best way to ensure that growth is actually feasible.
6. Check your bias
Your employee’s performance indicators should be based on alignment to organizational values, not on your own personal preferences. This sounds rudimentary, but it’s all too easy to give a pass to employees we get along with. Just because one employee’s sense of humor tickles your funny bone doesn’t mean their weaknesses should be overlooked at the expense of other members of your team. Check that outcomes match organizational goals and values—you may be surprised at who your true top performers are.
Along the same lines, if an employee completes a task differently than you would have but it was still well-done and well-received, commend them on it.
7. Document, document, document
Your friends in HR will thank you for this. Documentation is easier than we think and incredibly necessary. After your feedback conversation, send a quick follow-up email to that employee right away. If you were commending your employee for something positive, they will feel the compliment twofold. If you have suggested your employee correct a behavior, they will have a written reminder. For more serious discussions, you’ll want to CC your leadership team, HR, or follow whatever protocol is standard for your organization. In the long run, these documented conversations provide a paper trail that is enormously valuable. You may find them useful to get a raise for your employee in the future, or you may find them necessary to help you with a termination.
Although each employee you work with will have different strengths and weaknesses, all deserve to be given quality feedback. A well-executed performance discussion will make good employees better, and provide useful input for employees who need to improve.
Learn more about leading successful performance conversations by attending a free Campfire session 👉