Throughout my career, I have given feedback as a supervisor, colleague, assessor, and coach. Yet, in the past several years, the vast majority of my time has been spent providing feedback to executives and professionals with lengthy tenures, accomplished careers, and impressive resumes. Challenging? You bet! Yet feedback is really the only way for us to calibrate our performance or to know whether the impact that we are having is what we intend – whether we’re providing feedback to an accomplished executive or a newly hired employee.
Feedback – truly meaningful feedback – is very difficult both to provide and to embrace. An effective presentation of feedback requires clarity of thought and words. Yet feedback is often provided with a delay or only when things have gone terribly wrong, neither of which leads to clarity. It also requires a delicate balance – communication that is direct enough to be understood, yet indirect enough to be heard. Feedback offered with no consideration of kindness or moderation will be rejected. Feedback offered too gently will be overlooked.
Even if communicated effectively, the message may still be ignored. Why? We attend to different details, we attribute cause and motivation based on our own history and world view, and we then create a story of the event that makes sense…to us. We literally see the world from the inside out. It is easy to dismiss feedback as inaccurate because to us it so often truly is. We see the events, we see our behavior, and we see our intentions from a totally different viewpoint. We dismiss others’ reality as inaccurate because it is not our own.
So, how can we enhance a process that is so critical yet so fraught with the potential for error? I offer a few suggestions and lessons learned below.
Focus on the job, the role, and the requirements. Provide a framework that makes sense and that organizes what you have to say and explains why you have to say it.
Evaluate only important job characteristics and competencies. If using a general corporate performance appraisal form, customize the competencies if necessary to better reflect the specifics of the role and to demonstrate the relevance of the feedback.
Discuss behaviors, communicate objectively, and avoid inferences about intentions or values. Although I am sure it is difficult for seasoned executives to receive a performance review from someone they barely know, my objectivity and distance prove to be an advantage. I have suffered no disappointments and have no expectations. I can describe what worked and what did not, suggest enhancements and modifications, and express confidence in their ability to improve. The review is focused solely on the effectiveness of their behavior in light of the role and its requirements, and not colored by personal experience, recent interactions, or performance history.
Look for trends and consistency across people and situations. Try to find the broader goal of how to enhance performance instead of getting lost in the particulars of an event or incident.
Prepare and plan for the presentation. Think about how you can build buy-in and help to ensure that the messages you want to convey are the ones received. Know the primary points you want to make and the tone you want to set for the discussion – is it one of gratitude for a job well done, encouragement for continued development, or a cautionary tale of the need to change?
Approach the discussion assuming that the feedback will be valued. You have important information to offer, treat it that way.
I was not surprised by how challenging it was to conduct performance reviews for seasoned professionals. I was surprised by how sincerely the reviews were appreciated. People – at all levels, whether newly hired or long-term – want feedback. Everyone, without exception – good review or bad – appreciated receiving the feedback and being given the opportunity to improve. Fundamentally, feedback, it would seem, is all about noticing – the person, the contributions, and how you can help. How cool is that?