Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Are You Following These 3 Rules For Giving Effective Feedback?

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.

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  1. On November 8th, 2011 at 11:38 AM Richard A Marti Jr said:

    Nice Tanveer. Good communication is about understanding. As you explained in the story about your review that you exited feeling disappointed and that your boss did not communicate objectives clearly, I was thinking: Yes, it is his job to communicate clearly AND it is our job to ask questions to pull out understanding. I think it is imperative in good communication to have an order/confirmation feedback loop..
    . "This is what I mean"
    .."Did you mean this"
    . " Yes, that is what I meant, or no… it is more like this"
    I think that it is pretty cool that you first recognized your relationship with the students… and then crafted your communication with them.
    That shows a level of care that fosters great communication.
    Thanks Tanveer

  2. On November 8th, 2011 at 12:18 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Richard; I agree with you that introducing some form of redundancy into our communications is important to ensuring that the message has been received and understood correctly. Ironically, while we can watch movies and TV shows where we see military and medical personnel repeating what others told them and think nothing of it, there's still a lot of resistance to utilizing this approach in a business setting.

    Of course, part of the problem is that in our communications, we naturally tend to view the information from our vantage point without considering how others might interpret or see the situation differently. That's why when offering feedback to their employees, leaders need to be concious of the fact that the focus of the exercise is not on you, on what you're happy with or dissatisfied with. Rather, it should be on the employee's performance and how their accomplishments impact the organization's goals, be it in a good way or not.

    This way, feedback becomes something that is actionable and encourages progress, as opposed to simply making employees feel like they've messed up over the course of the year. Thanks again, Richard, for the thoughtful comment. Glad to have you chiming in again and sharing your thoughts on the ideas I present here on my blog.

  3. On November 8th, 2011 at 12:29 PM Jon M said:

    Tanveer, Very insightful. The "feed" element is essential, and we need to ensure that we nourish our team more than once a year. Feedback should be given at the right, multiple times. It creates momentum and continous strength in the work done. Thanks! Jon

  4. On November 9th, 2011 at 10:41 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Jon,

    I agree with you that feedback is something that needs to be given consistently throughout the year and not simply relegated to a formalized process. Unfortunately, most leaders tend to use the annual performance review as a crutch in terms of providing feedback, instead of recognizing that feedback has more value and impact when provided throughout the year.

    Thanks Jon for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On November 8th, 2011 at 12:46 PM Jim Matorin said:

    Once again I really enjoy how you tie your posts into a non-business, real world situation we can 1.) learn from; and 2.) we most probably experience during the course of our adventure. Consequently that is why I am a huge fan of your blog Tanveer. Two additional thoughts: 1.) Back in the day when I had people respondsibilites (now that I am a solo act I only have cardboard cut outs in my office) I used to provide my people with continual feedback so no one ever wandered or caught off guard when I did provide a formal annual review always on time. I really hated working for people that gave me my review after 15 months with the raise retroactive. 2.) I am always amused to your point #2 when I ask people are you in the receiving mood of some feedback that they cringe and think something bad is coming. I get a chuckle everytime.

  6. On November 9th, 2011 at 11:06 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim; I truly appreciate your kind words and support.

    One thing I've noticed that many successful leaders often mention as one of the things they do during their workday is going around and talking with their employees, listening to what challenges their employees face and what opportunities they see around them. I think this is one of the most overlooked elements of giving feedback, that without having that context of what your employees go through every day to meet their goals, it's difficult to provide effective feedback. After all, it's easy to look at an end result and question or praise the outcome. But what's more important is to understand how employees went about achieving those results since that's where you can discover hidden talents or untapped sources of potential growth.

    It is unfortunate that many of us have become conditioned to expect the only reason those in charge want to talk to us is because we did something wrong. We really do need to shift our collective perception – and treatment – of giving feedback so that it becomes something people seek as a means to improve themselves and their contributions. That would certainly be a win-win for all.

    Thanks again, Jim, for both the kind words and for sharing your experiences with giving feedback.

  7. On November 8th, 2011 at 12:49 PM John said:

    I do agree that feedback should be taken positively and that each feedback thrown at our products and services should help us assess its quality and if we are able to meet the customer's expectations. This could also help us formulate strategies and methods to attain better results and advantage over our competitors.

  8. On November 9th, 2011 at 11:08 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    While that should be the focus of what we offer when we give feedback, unfortunately most of us have had a poor experience with getting feedback in large part because those offering it fail to appreciate that the goal here is to help others improve and succeed and not simply telling them what we see their doing wrong.

    Thanks John for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  9. On November 9th, 2011 at 10:31 AM Jeanie said:

    It is so sad that not all employers will read all these useful tips… Because everything that you mentioned above is true and I agree completely with every word. Only clever employers know about it and practice it

  10. On November 9th, 2011 at 11:12 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That it is, but it's also the most misunderstood by those providing it, which is why so many employees cringe at being offered feedback since it's rarely given from the context of helping the employees improve as it is more a shopping list of 'things you need to work on'.

    As I mentioned above, there are numerous studies out there which have shown that if you want to motivate people to succeed, you need to help them build on their strengths and helping them make their weaknesses irrelevant. Unfortunately, most feedback given tends to do the opposite by putting our weaknesses on center stage while those contributions which gave value to the organization get lost backstage.

  11. On November 11th, 2011 at 8:39 AM paardenrassen said:

    feedback can give employers more motivation. it is good way to avoid mistakes

  12. On November 11th, 2011 at 12:03 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    It is a great way to keep your team motivated if done right because the goal of feedback should be to help your employees succeed. It's not hard to see why someone would be motivated from receiving feedback if it was given from that vantage point instead of simply as an opportunity to criticixe the efforts others make.

  13. On November 11th, 2011 at 12:02 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely, Steve. It's important that feedback be actionable in providing both context for how one's efforts matter and direction for where you need to set your sights on. That's why shopping lists of what you're doing wrong is counter-productive because it rarely provides employees with these two important details. Thanks Steve for sharing your thoughts on this.

  14. On November 12th, 2011 at 2:05 AM caroline said:

    Taking feedback will make employees feel as if their opinions matter, boosting their productivity and it also helps to understand the current dynamics of the workplace

  15. On November 14th, 2011 at 4:45 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    It's my pleasure, Katherin. I'm glad to hear that this piece had a positive impact on you.

  16. On November 14th, 2011 at 4:54 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Khleo,

    When giving feedback, it's important that we ask ourselves what we expect the recipient to do with what we're telling them. If, for example, we're simply pointing out things they've wrong, how can we expect them to feel anything but a failure? On the other hand, if we provide some insights and direction on how they can address it, we're not simply treating the conversation as an opportunity to express our displeasure with their efforts. Instead, our goal is to provide them with the guidance to do something about it by tapping into their unique strengths/talents to overcome this difficulty.

    Using this approach, we're not only ensuring that the issue is being addressed, but we're helping our employees become stronger participants in the process as well. Thanks, Khleo, for sharing your experiences with giving feedback to others.

  17. On December 21st, 2011 at 7:22 AM David Kanigan said:

    Tanveer, thank you. This post resonated with me (again). You inspired my post today on the subject of performance reviews at . Dave

  18. On December 21st, 2011 at 10:00 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Glad to hear it, Dave. Thanks for sharing a link to your piece; I'll be sure to take a look and see what ideas this piece inspired in you.

  19. On February 22nd, 2012 at 11:48 PM limumi01 said:

    It is almost like a former teacher of mine had read this article Tanveer. I struggled through certain segments of high school and the chemistry teacher paired me up with a tutor on his own dime. There was no way I was going to let him down and I worked my butt off to improve on my overall grades. Sacrifices were made as I had to let go of the sports aspect of school. As the grades were improving, the feedback was not the idle comments like "good job". They were indepth and when given, he was very present and direct. It was full of vigor and now reminds me of the time between the 11 and 12th round of a boxing match. It was that boosting. Someone took that interest and the encouragement that followed shaped who I am now. Feedback juiced with real enthusiasm is that powerful.

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