There are few things that managers detest more than annual performance reviews. Not only does the process feel like a time-consuming chore, but it also may lead to conflict when the manager needs to give corrective performance feedback. Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of criticism, either. The first time I received honest feedback from a 360 review of my leadership skills, I literally sobbed in my office — even though it was delivered by a supportive and caring coach.
But I have come to regard the act of sharing honest, constructive feedback with my team and with the clients I coach as a gift, grounded in a sincere desire to help them improve and succeed. And in an era when employee morale is low and retention is paramount, productive feedback, done right, may be a manager’s secret weapon: a tool for rebuilding commitment and connection. I’d like to share some best practices that my PRG colleagues and I have developed through our consulting practice for delivering clear performance feedback that is both helpful and well received.
Let’s start by replaying a cycle that is common in every workplace. You, as a manager who supervises others, will inevitably have someone who is not performing up to your expectations. Maybe they are highly creative but can’t meet a deadline to save their soul. Maybe their work ethic is excellent but they are rudely blunt with their colleagues, leaving a trail of hurt feelings. Maybe they led two projects well but completely let you down on a third, and you had to sail in for the rescue.
Because we all hate conflict and it is hard to give honest feedback, a cycle of avoidance and resentment often ensues. We don’t directly tackle the problem, but drop hints and critical asides. We leave the person out of key decisions and meetings. We start to signal that the person doesn’t enjoy the level of trust and esteem to which they think they are entitled.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this behavior from a leader — the current phrase in vogue is “quiet firing” — you know how crummy it feels. The person who is out of favor knows something is wrong, but they may lack the self-awareness to correctly diagnose the problem. Rather than fixing things, they may double down on maladaptive behaviors. And so the cycle continues, until the annual performance review rolls around. Now the leader is faced with a decision: Do I damn with faint praise and try to get out unscathed? Do I unload a year’s worth of grievances in one sitting, shredding the person’s sense of self-worth? Or do I avoid the whole issue by reorganizing the person out of a job?
The individual who is not performing at an A+ level needs timely, specific, and helpful feedback to improve, and they need this feedback continuously, rather than at the end of an annual review cycle. It’s possible, armed with clearer expectations and a more accurate sense of the gap between their performance and what the leader is looking for, that they could do better. That’s why your honest feedback is a gift — it is the only way the people you lead can consistently grow and succeed.
How, then, can you deliver corrective feedback — whether just-in-time or during an annual review — in a way that leaves both parties feeling it was a helpful and constructive experience? I’ve developed a structured approach that can make this interaction more fruitful and less fearful.
It starts with your mindset. First, you need to go into the interaction believing that the person has value to the organization, they can improve, and your sharing of feedback is a generous act that is intended to help them succeed. (If you truly don’t think the person is redeemable, then you should be on a different path to help them exit. But until and unless you are ready for that step, they deserve your genuine support and investment.)
Once you get clear about your motivation, then you are ready for the conversation. Here are seven steps to help you navigate:
- Start by acknowledging that performance feedback conversations are hard for both parties. Depending on the context, self-deprecating humor may be appropriate and effective.
- Make clear your desire to support the individual’s success in the organization: “I’m going to give you frank feedback today because I’m invested in your success here and I believe you need this feedback in order to learn and grow.”
- Start with sincere, positive feedback about things the person is doing well and areas where they excel. Everybody has something good if we look hard enough.
- Offer specific, constructive performance feedback about areas where they need to grow and improve, along with a rationale for why improvement is needed and what the impact of the current behavior is on the organization. For example, “When you take credit for other people’s ideas in a meeting, it frustrates your colleagues and makes them less likely to share their ideas with you in the future. And over time, they won’t want to include you in their projects, which would be a loss for everyone.” Give specific, recent instances of the behavior you are observing, but don’t pile on, and avoid phrases like “you always” and “you never.” Two to three concrete illustrations of a particular concern are sufficient to make the point.
- Pause to ask for thoughts and give your colleague a chance to respond and ask questions. Be open but don’t feel the need to argue, persuade or “win”; the goal is to listen respectfully but also to be clear about your feedback and expectations in a context of caring and support. For example: “It sounds like you don’t agree with my feedback about how you’re doing in this area. I know this is hard to hear, but as you reflect on it, I think you will find ways to improve. I’m giving you my honest assessment in order to help you grow.”
- Together, agree on (and document) a concrete set of behaviors and actions they can take to improve in the areas you’ve identified. Ideally, they will have thoughts about this and agree to it. If they don’t, be clear about your expectations and the actions you would like to see. Depending on how significant your concerns are, this may need to be a multi-step process where you offer them time to reflect and schedule a follow-up discussion about remedies.
- End with another statement of support and encouragement, and an expression of confidence that they can make the needed changes. If they have been open and receptive to the feedback, acknowledge this and thank them for hearing you and being committed to doing better in the future.
Approaching performance feedback in this way is part of the toolkit of a generous leader. Although it is hard to do well, with practice leaders can get better at it and adopt it as a consistent habit. Over time, employees will come to see the leader’s honest feedback as part of a caring investment in their long-term success.