With December now upon us, many leaders and their organizations are now shifting their focus towards that much debated and much-maligned practice for evaluating employee productivity and effectiveness: the annual performance review.
Of course, while there has been much written lately about the ‘death of annual performance reviews’, a study done by Towers Watson revealed that – despite the high profile examples of companies like Microsoft, Accenture, and GE completely ditching their annual performance reviews – a majority of North American organizations are opting to transform their current performance review process as opposed to doing away with them completely.
Now whether you agree with continuing to use annual performance reviews or not, the fact is these discussions about this feedback tool reveal that there’s a far more pressing issue that leaders everywhere need to address – namely, what kind of feedback, if any, are we providing to those we lead?
Of course, when it comes to giving feedback, there’s a common approach that many leaders opt to use, something that’s often referred to as the ‘feedback sandwich’.
What this technique involves is starting the conversation with something positive – the argument being that this will help your employee to be receptive to what you have to say next. At this point, you offer what you really want to share, that is the negative feedback that’s the reason behind this conversation, after which you give your employee some more positive feedback in order to to help soften the blow and ‘end on a high note’.
Now in theory this might sound like a fair and balanced approach to offering someone feedback that can be hard to hear, given how we’re reinforcing or reminding them of the things they do well, before and after pointing out where they went wrong or what they need to improve on going forward.
But the reality is that it’s not so much the receiver of our feedback as it is ourselves who we’re hoping to protect through this communication ploy. That by setting up a friendly start and a reassuring ending, we might avoid the necessary unpleasantness that comes with telling someone they’re doing something wrong.
This strategy also gives us the false impression that once the information is out there, there’s no need to worry about any negative repercussions as our employee now knows what we expect them to do and consequently, the issue has been ‘taken care of’ and we can now focus on other issues.
Of course, if you remember what it was like to be on the receiving end of this kind of feedback, I’m sure you’ll remember that it’s far from done once that conversation is over. That the sting of being called-out for the mistakes we’ve made reverberates long afterwards, and often leaves us with either feelings of self-doubt about our abilities, or worse, a sense of disengagement about the real value of our contributions.
What these situations reveal is how as leaders, we often fail to ask ourselves what is the reason behind why we’re giving feedback in the first place? Now, typically, when I ask leaders this question, more often than not, the answer I get is that the feedback they give to their employees is done to point out the things that they are doing wrong.
Now ignoring the issue of whether these leaders are also providing praise to inform their employees of when they do well or exceed expectations, the glaring problem here is that this approach focuses solely on what our employees did wrong, without any input on how to help them improve.
Seen in this light, it’s no wonder why some leaders like to employ this ‘feedback sandwich’ because no one likes to be told that they’re wrong. But hiding this important piece of information within two positive words of encouragement is not only disingenuous, it results in a lost opportunity for us to use our leadership to drive actual change, not only in the way our employees approach their jobs, but in how they view their contributions.
In other words, feedback shouldn’t be limited to what employees do wrong; it should also tell them how to do better [Share on Twitter]. It should be treated as an opportunity to remind our employees of the potential we see in them, of what we believe them capable of, and to inspire them to challenge their assumptions of what they can achieve.
I’ve written before about the importance of creating an environment where employees feel safe to fail because they know they’re expected to learn from it. But how can failure be a learning experience if the feedback they get from us focuses only on what they did wrong instead of also helping them to understand how they can do better going forward?
This is why we don’t need to use a feedback sandwich because as much as it hurts to be told that you made a mistake or messed up, it’s easier to pick ourselves up and push ourselves to try again when we see that those in charge and those around us believe in our potential to ultimately succeed in our efforts.
In other words, effective feedback leaves people hungry to learn more about themselves and how to do and be better [Share on Twitter].
Granted, it’s not easy to focus on an employee’s capacity to do better when they fail or mess up, but our drive to empower our employees to bring their best efforts should not be limited to when things are going well. Indeed, it’s a true test of our leadership if we’re able to get our employees to bring their best selves to the work they do when things go wrong, as much as they do when things are going our way.
The other truth we need to understand about being more effective in how we give feedback is understanding that feedback is not a one-way conversation, but a dialogue to find out how we can help each other [Share on Twitter]. That it’s not simply about what I as the leader need to tell you and get you to change or do differently.
Rather, it’s also about learning about the day-to-day realities our employees face that serve to inform how they choose to go about achieving the goals that we’ve set out for them to attain, if not also at times how some of the things we’ve communicated might have been misunderstood.
Approaching the conversation from this vantage point allows us to understand the truth that feedback is not just telling people what they got wrong; it’s guiding them in the direction that will allow them to succeed. And this fact allows us to treat the issue as an on-going conversation and process, where our employees should know that they can follow up on this conversation in order to share new ideas, details, and updates so that, working together, we can ensure our collective success.
So whether your organization will be focusing on deploying annual performance reviews over the next few weeks or not doesn’t change the fact that what matters most is not only that we provide more consistent feedback, but that we don’t rely on a single, formalized conversation held once a year to advise our employees of how they’re fairing, of what they need to do to succeed, and where they’re helping to make the biggest difference.
Indeed, what’s important for leaders to understand is that effective feedback tells employees not just about the past, but about what’s needed going forward [Share on Twitter]. It should leave them with a clearer understanding of not only how they can do better, but how they can become a more valued contributor to helping their organization achieve its shared purpose.
It’s that kind of feedback that will leave your employees hungry, not only to learn more about what they can achieve, but about how they can make a difference that matters, both for your organization and for themselves.