“Feedback.” Possibly the most dreaded word in management.
Every item now needs feedback. We need feedback on the project, from our clients, about our employees. We have to sit down and awkwardly tell others about their strengths and their “challenges.” (Heaven forbid we acknowledge weaknesses in our people!)
Most managers endure feedback sessions. They schedule the meeting, suffer through the pain, and check the box on their HR form, because... lawyers.
As a leader, your job is to get outcomes, for your company and for your people.
The Point of Feedback
Clearly this is not what feedback was created for. So what is the point? How can you give valuable feedback? What should we expect from our managers and our people?
As a leader, your job is to get outcomes, for your company and for your people. The goal of good feedback is not just to communicate something, but to help improve future outcomes. These outcomes are two-fold. Your business needs you to get better outcomes for the bottom line, and your people deserve to have a leader who pushes them towards success in their careers.
If communicating something leads to worse outcomes, then you have a problem. Your feedback is useless. You should reconsider the communication altogether.
Knowing Your People
The first step to effective feedback is knowing your people. This can be challenging for managers in today’s world, with remote working, global teams, and focus on short-term results.
People respond to things differently. Some people can take a criticism and turn it into positive action. Other people will just stew on it until they hate you. You should focus on communicating in a way that leads to equally effective outcomes, even if the delivery method varies person to person.
Baseline for Trust
For people to take your feedback seriously and in the best possible light, they need to trust you. A lot of time as a leader should be put towards developing this level of rapport with your organization.
Creating trust is not a simple exercise, but here are some tips:
Spend time with your people
Listen to their challenges and take their complaints seriously
Show that you trust them by asking their opinion or accepting their approaches
Act as your authentic self, showing vulnerability and confidence in equal measure
Working towards Self-Discovery
As a leader, you might feel like it is your responsibility to identify the shortcomings of others and point it out to them. This shows that you are superior and deserve to be their leader.
While I understand this temptation, this has rarely led to positive outcomes for me. Instead, highlighting others weaknesses almost always triggers feelings of insecurity and brings out defensive behaviors. Think of yourself. Have you always responded to criticism well?
I recommend helping people understand themselves, as it is more impactful than telling them how they are. People can really struggle with abstract questions, so don’t feel like you need to ask “What are your weaknesses?”
Zone in on specific moments and have meaningful conversations.
Work on skills: “How did your call with the team go? Were there any parts that you felt nervous about? What additional prep could you have done?”
Identify behaviors: “It seems like this [issue] has come up a lot in the last 6 months. Why do you think that is? What could you change that is within your control?”
Promote growth: “Who do you admire at the organization? What is it that they do that is so inspiring? How could you also do that?”
The key theme is that your employee is providing the thoughts and the actions. Your role is to ask the right questions and provide space for your team member to show vulnerability.
Humans shy away from their weaknesses because admitting to them can bring up feelings of failure and insecurity. (Feeling insecure yourself? Here is how to deal with it!) I’ve worked with people who avoid asking for help, even when they need it, because they don’t want others to know they can’t handle it on their own.
As a leader, you have an opportunity to change the culture. Communicate to your people that having weaknesses is normal and tolerable, but ignoring them is not. If they understand that not every failure is job ending, they might be more willing to participate in your feedback conversation.
Admit when you don't know something
If you are asked a question you don’t have the answer to, admit it, and work with your employee to figure out the answer together
“I’m not sure how to answer that client question, but I think Ed on the product team would be a good person to ask. Would you like to reach out and put me in copy?”
When appropriate, be upfront about where your weaknesses lie, and how you are addressing them
“I’m really excited to bring on Jane as my assistant manager. One of her strengths is data analysis, which is something I could use more help on, and is a good complement for my focus on strategy.”
Give the why
Attack their concern head-on, and make it clear that the goal of the feedback is not to belittle them or punish them. (Get more tips on having hard conversations with your team)
“One of my goals as your manager is to set you up for long term career success. I noticed you kept looking at your phone during our director’s meeting, and I’m sure others noticed as well. I don’t want small things like that to impact how others perceive your interest, so in a meeting like this, try to stay focused and engaged in the conversation.”
Don’t Wait for the Review
Giving feedback during your employee review is extra loaded, because it is associated with compensation. Employees are going to struggle to hear the feedback when they are laser focused on whether or not they are going to see an uptick in their salary.
At the same time, if you aren’t selecting them for a raise and you haven’t given feedback throughout the year, they might get taken off-guard. Set yourself up for success but making sure there are no surprises on where they shine, and where they struggle.
There is one exception to the above. Most feedback is intended to improve someone’s outcomes, but there does come a point as a leader where the goal of feedback is to work someone out of your organization.
This can sound like a heartless caveat, but the reality is that not everyone is a fit for the role they are assigned. If you have made a best effort to align them to the role and it isn’t working, your job as a leader will be to move them into an area that is a better fit for their skills, whether that is in your organization or not.
In this scenario, feedback becomes (unfortunately) more transactional. You need to be clear on where the gaps are, and why they are not getting closed. You owe your employee clarity on why they might lose their job, even if they don’t want to hear it, and you need to do your part to show the organization where the decision is coming from.
I hope you never have to give feedback in this context, but I also know it happens.
Make feedback something that is transformational for your organization and your people, instead of an HR exercise.