As we slowly make our way through the remaining weeks of the year, many organizations are now shifting their focus to an exercise that is often met with disdain and apprehension – the annual performance review. Regardless of whether you’re on the receiving or giving end, most of us tend to view these feedback exercises as unconstructive or a waste of time, in large part because we approach the conversation from the wrong vantage point. Participating at a recent awards gala for one of the regional high schools helped to not only shed some light on this issue, but also on how leaders can make the act of giving feedback to others more instructive and beneficial.
I was invited by the school principal to give a speech and help present awards as part of a ceremony to recognize students who had maintained a high academic standing throughout the previous school year. Although I was honoured and delighted to take part, I have to admit that I did feel some hesitation because I wasn’t an active member of this community when these students achieved these accomplishments. As such, I felt that any recognition on my part of their efforts wouldn’t exactly carry much weight because of that lack of connection.
So I decided to take another approach to my involvement where I used my role in this ceremony to serve as a source of encouragement and support for how these students could build on and attain a similar achievement over the course of the current academic year.
Following the ceremony, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from both the parents and the students of how much they appreciated my participation, and in particular the ideas I had shared in my speech and in the brief comments made to every student as they came up on stage to accept their award.
What I began to realize is that while the teachers, the school principal, and vice-principals were providing the students with a much-deserved recognition for their efforts and accomplishments, my presence and words served more as a form of feedback – of getting the students to view their accomplishment in terms of how they can apply it to their future efforts.
After listening to the comments shared by these students and their parents, three common themes came up which can serve as valuable rules for leaders to follow to ensure the feedback they offer to their employees helps to improve their productivity, if not also strengthening the value of the contributions employees make to their organization.
1. Feedback should give employees a sense of direction and understanding of what matters
I remember one time for my annual performance review, my boss started talking about a team project I was assigned to and how some of the results we achieved were not what he was after and consequently, he wrote in my review that I hadn’t met the expectations for that year. I walked out of his office feeling a mixture of disappointment in myself and frustration with his leadership.
While it’s not hard to understand the disappointment I felt, the frustration was the outcome of his poor communication skills; namely, that while the project was underway and he was getting some of the preliminary data, not once did he pull his team aside and point out that perhaps we were veering off course and providing us with some input on where we needed to shift our efforts. In this performance review, all I came out of the meeting with was the understanding that I hadn’t met his objectives, without any clear input on how I get back on course through the work I was currently doing.
In the case of the students at this awards gala, while the awards themselves were recognizing the accomplishments they attained over the previous school year, the message wasn’t simply about drawing their attention to what they did right. Rather, the focus was on using these accomplishments to provide the students with a sense of direction and purpose; of not treating it as an isolated event, but instead providing them with the context of how it would help them to build a foundation for whatever opportunities they wished to pursue in the future.
Similarly, when providing feedback to your employees, it’s important that leaders frame it with a context of how their accomplishments – and setbacks – can serve to help them and their team move forward, with a particular focus on which direction their employees should be headed. This way, when they leave the performance review, your employees will not only have a clearer sense of what’s expected of them, but of which direction they need to point their current and future efforts towards.
2. Feedback should inform you of your strengths and the value you create
For many of us, the reason why feedback is not sought after more is because we often associate it with negative comments; that the act of receiving feedback is more about someone telling us what we’re doing wrong than providing us with insights about which of our contributions mattered most to our organization.
Of course, the most effective feedback is not to offer employees a shopping list of weaknesses or areas that they need to improve on. Rather, the goal should be to help them understand what unique strengths they bring to the team and consequently, the value they’ve created for the organization. After all, numerous studies have shown that people are motivated to improve not by being told about what they’re doing wrong, but through an understanding of the value they’re able to provide through their contributions.
There’s a reason why many of us who were present at this awards ceremony are expecting to see these students again at the next awards ceremony and it’s not simply because they have ‘the right stuff’. Instead, it’s because these students have been told what their strengths are and can see the value they created from their efforts – the pride they have in themselves as well as that seen in the eyes of their parents.
From that vantage point, it’s not hard to see why they’ll be driven and motivated to achieve this goal again, if not also how leaders can create that internal drive to succeed in their employees as well.
3. Feedback should make you hungry to achieve more
In my speech, one of the things I advised the students to do was to savour this moment and to remember that it was thanks to their hard work, their persistence to overcome the obstacles in their path, and their drive to succeed that they were able to achieve this rare accomplishment amongst the thousands of students at their school.
However, I followed this with a word of encouragement that they wake up the next morning with a renewed sense of hunger to once again push themselves to excel and move forward; to meet the new challenges they’ll face with the same drive and persistence that got them here, ending with my hopes to see each of them again at next year’s awards banquet.
Judging from the comments I received from both the students and their parents, many of them took this message to heart, feeling valued not just for what they accomplished over the previous school year, but because someone was willing to encourage them to look ahead with the knowledge that they could do it again, if not achieve even better results.
And perhaps that’s the single greatest message leaders can impart to their employees through their feedback – a sense of belief and trust in their employees’ abilities to not just meet the expectations being put upon them, but to exceed them because they know what they’re capable of when given the support and encouragement they need to succeed.
In the end, leaders have to remember that the word feedback starts with the word “feed” which essentially refers to nourishing a need to help ourselves not only thrive but grow and evolve. And when it comes to understanding what needs our workforce has, there’s no better expert than our employees themselves.
By paying attention to what your employees tell you, you can provide them with the kind of feedback that will not only inform them of your expectations, but which will also foster within them a renewed sense of purpose in how their contributions can help their organization to achieve its shared goals.