When you are in a leadership role, managing people is one of your most important and visible responsibilities. Failure to provide tough feedback can lead to issues such as cowardly review scores and firing firestorms.

A recent post covered ‘Five Tips for Effective Performance Reviews‘. One of those important tips states that there should be no surprises in the annual performance review meeting.

Obligation to provide ongoing feedback

The annual review should reinforce feedback that happened on a regular and timely basis throughout the year. Managers have an obligation to provide continuous coaching throughout the year.

Some managers avoid providing feedback. They might be nervous about doing it or claim to not have enough time.

Managing people is a leader’s main job. From an executive coaching perspective, it falls as part of the ‘Multiply as Coach’ competency of the Magnify Impact Coaching (MIC) framework.

The obvious risk – poor work

The most obvious issue with avoiding feedback is that some employees will deliver poor work and not have a chance to improve. The company, team, employee and you all suffer when that happens.

Risks to you as a leader

But there are some other, less obvious, risks and issues as well.

The biggest risk is to you and your own career and credibility.

Risk 1: Leaders default to cowardly review scores

Manager who avoid giving feedback often default to giving an employee a solid performance review score in order to avoid a difficult conversation.

This tendency shows up in the distribution of performance review scores. For example, a company that uses a 1–5 rating scale will probably have few people assigned ones or fives as ratings. The ratings cluster between 3.0 and 3.5.

Middle scores make for easy conversations. So, you might be thinking, what’s so wrong with that?

In some cases, the middle score is appropriate. But many times, managers assign middle scores to avoid tough conversations.

A needed conversation never happens. The employee gets the impression that everything is good or at least good enough.

A senior leader at one company referred to a 3.0 as the ‘cowardly review score’.

The manager avoids a difficult, short-term conversation, but creates a long-term leadership and performance problem.

Risk 2: Good performers leave

When solid performers do not receive feedback, they are likely to leave for another manager or go to another company. Even good performers value and expect feedback.

Good performers also get frustrated watching poor performers get paid for doing sub-standard work. It creates an imbalance on the team and shifts extra work and stress to the strong performers.

Strong performers notice when leaders tolerate poor performance.

Risk 3: Leaders burn in the firing firestorm

As noted in Risk 2, strong performers start abandoning ship – leaving behind the poor performers. These poor performers keep doing what they have always done – after all, their review was okay and they have not gotten tough feedback.

As poor performance continues, the manager and company grow more and more frustrated.

At some point, an issue will tip the performance from poor to unacceptable – and the firing firestorm starts to burn.

The manager jumps from frustrated to furious and storms down to Human Resources wanting to immediately fire the poor performing employee.

HR probes into the situation. It quickly becomes obvious that there has been no feedback about the problems and no written documentation. The only history shows solid 3.0 performance review scores.

Unless there is a serious policy violation, HR usually denies the request for immediate termination.

The furious manager must go back, give feedback, do coaching that should have been happening all along. This gives the employee one more chance to get back on track.

Risk 4: Leaders lose credibility

Senior leadership will notice patterns such as strong performers leaving and firing firestorms. When a pattern repeats, the company sees the manager as a performance problem.

The manager’s boss starts giving feedback about poor management skills, and the manager’s own career is at risk.

Part of leading people is giving feedback and having tough conversations. Avoiding tough conversations shows poor judgment.

This article was originally published on December 2, 2019 at Science of Working as ‘Cowardly review scores and firing firestorms‘.


  • Ann Howell

    Executive Coach

    Howell Leadership Science

    I write about research-supported workplace topics and improving workplaces. I'm also experimenting with humor writing in my Level 50 Life series. Be warned - this is an experiment, and explosions, or at least bad jokes, could occur at any time.