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As official managers and leaders in any organization we will invariably arrive at the moment of having to review our team members’ performance.

If we are doing our jobs well, almost none of the content in those performance conversations should be a surprise for the employee – both the positive feedback and areas of improvement.

Most of us want to progress, have high internal motivation and locus of control, and we have developed a thick enough skin to receive very candid feedback. Still, keep in mind to deliver feedback with empathy, compassion, and respect.

Here are some tips based on my experience and that of my clients.  I would love to learn about your techniques as well.

1) Be specific

Have specific examples of what people are doing really well and the areas where they need to improve. When we tell someone ‘Good job delivering the presentation’, we are not letting them know what exactly they did well so they can replicate it. On the other hand, when we tell our team member, ‘good job delivering the presentation! I think repeating the key points at the beginning, the middle and in the final summary was effective and helped people connect the dots’. The person now knows what went well and will repeat it next time she or he has to deliver a presentation. 

Similarly, if we tell someone ‘I did not like how the presentation deck came out’ we are not letting the person know what specifically was wrong with the document. He or she does not have a clue where to start improving. If instead we tell someone ‘The presentation deck did not have consistent font type and size and the colors were misaligned with the branding’, the person now knows what changes to incorporate in the next version of the document.

2) Focus on the behavior

It is important to separate the person from the behavior when we give feedback. This is especially crucial when we talk about opportunities for improvement or when the employee is not meeting expectations.

For example, if we tell an employee ‘You need to control your temper!’ we are attacking the person. Instead, we could say ‘I noticed you getting defensive when your data was challenged during the presentation. Your response to the questions posed during the meeting were perceived as curt.’ And then you can continue the conversation to understand what was going on, how the person can remediate, etc.

In addition, we want to be clear how their behavior is being perceived by other people. For example, instead of telling someone ‘You’re too abrupt when making requests to your colleagues’, you could say ‘based on the feedback from several of your colleagues, they perceive you as being too abrupt…’ It is important that the employee understands that unfortunately perception is reality. Even if they think they are doing everything right, they are not coming across how they intended.

3) Ask for their assessment

In the last few years, I always start my performance review conversations asking the other person for their perspective of the year. What do they think they did well? Where do they think they fell short? What are they proud of? What areas of improvement have they identified?

I do this for two reasons:

a) It gives me a sense of any gaps between their own assessment and mine, and I can clarify them during the conversation.

b) It tells me their level of self-awareness and how they think about and approach their career growth and development.

4) Start with the areas of improvement first

We have all heard about the ‘sandwich method’ for feedback. The two bread slices are positive feedback, and the middle is what the person needs to improve on.

I do not use this approach because

a) It dilutes the area of improvement.

b) It feels childish and borderline disrespectful, as if the other person were not mature enough to hear that not everything is roses and rainbows.

What I do instead is that I start the conversation with the areas of improvement. This allows both of us to give it the attention it requires especially when the person is not meeting expectations.

I end the conversation with what the person did well. This lets us finish on a high note. When the positive feedback is done before the areas of improvement, it feels as if it did not matter. You did this very well, but here are some things where you missed the mark. Not a great feeling, right?

The only time when I would advocate for having what needs improvement at the end of the conversation is if we want to send a strong message when someone is underperforming. Maybe this is the third (or fourth) conversation we are having with little or no progress.

5) Collect 360 feedback

Some companies will have an official process to do this. Regardless of the existence or not of such a process, gathering feedback from others makes the performance conversations extremely rich.

What I usually do is that I will ask my team member for a list of no more than 20 people. I vet the list to confirm it is balanced and I send them the request for feedback. 

I do not share the evaluation with my employee. I want people to give candid observations and I want to discover trends, not to solve grievances. I incorporate these comments with my own. I am always amazed at what I discover.

6) Place accountability in the right place

Our responsibility as the head of the team is to confirm that everyone is clear on their goals and of what is expected of each one. It is not our duty as the manager to change someone else.

Each of us as team members are responsible for meeting those expectations, figuring out how to get to the goal, and raising our hands when something is too challenging.

When people are not meeting expectations, I ask them for their input on what actions they are going to take to get back on track. It must be their plan. We review it and discuss it together to confirm that the actions, if executed, will bring the person to the required performance level.

I also observe how many times the person proactively brings what they are doing to get back on track during our 1:1 meetings. This speaks volumes about the person’s willingness to improve. For underperforming employees, I would track at least monthly.

7) Document

Documenting the key points of the process and conversation has multiple advantages. We can share in writing what both parties agreed on. It is very black and white: here are the expectations and here are the actions that ‘so and so’ agreed on taking in this timeline.

The tracking is clear since the actions are distinctly defined with the timeline for each one.

Depending on the size of the company, there are specific employee practices that need to be documented even before having an official Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). And if things escalate to the PIP level, you would have a big portion of the information already documented.

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Ken Blanchard

Giving effective feedback is both art and science. At the end of the day, we need to balance compassion, empathy, and what is best for the team and the organization.

We do not want to lose our best talent because we are too busy ‘fixing’ someone who cannot be improved. Often, there is a misfit between what the role is and the person’s strengths. And, hey, we all have difficult years. The measure is on getting up, dusting ourselves off, and work on the next version.

How do you like to receive feedback on performance? What tips have you applied when evaluating your team’s work? Please, let us know in the comments. You can write in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.

My mission is to help women transition from mid to senior level leadership by transforming their inner voice from critic to champion, so they can confidently realize and fulfill their potential.

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