The Art of Giving Honest and Effective Feedback

Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person—not just an employee—are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.

—Anne M. Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox Corporation

Sometimes the greatest challenges in business lie not within the actions of competitors or the needs of customers, but within your own company. If you or your employees lack motivation, the quality of your business plan or even your product doesn’t matter. The key to that motivation—and your company’s long-term success—is giving employees effective feedback.

First, however, it’s critical to understand the correlation between defining an employee’s goals and objectives and his or her actual performance. As the chart below indicates, employee objectives should be derived directly from your organization’s objectives. If you or your employees can’t make that connection, you need to ask if what they’re working on is truly necessary for the overall health of the company.

The art of giving honest and effective feedback

Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

—Tony Robbins, American self-help author and motivational speaker

As previously mentioned, establishing goals lays the groundwork for providing effective, actionable feedback. However, it’s important to not just define goals, but to define SMART goals:

  • Specific—identifiable and observational
  • Measurable—objective
  • Achievable—moderately difficult, but realistic
  • Relevant—meaningful to the individual, department, or organization
  • Time-bound—completed within a specific time

Having a SMART goal ensures that the answer to “was the project done on time and correctly?” is either “yes” or “no.” This clear delineation allows for concrete feedback on what your employees need to improve.

How you establish goals is just as important as drafting them in general. Drafting and updating goals require good communication between the manager and the employee. This communication can mean the difference between a motivated and accountable worker and one who’s merely showing up and punching a clock. Your job as the leader is to define the expected results, then let your employees determine how to reach the end goal. This creates motivation by giving employees a direct role in determining their goals and objectives. Their level of commitment will be much higher than if you merely hand them a list of goals and send them on their way.

As a manager, you play a key role in your employees’ successes—and in their failures. To avoid the latter, position your team for success by empowering its members. You need to be absolutely clear on your expectations and make sure that the team has the support and resources to do the job well. (Conversely, you can demotivate employees by giving orders and demanding action, by being ambiguous in your instructions, or by micromanaging them.)

“Information” and “communication” are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.

—Sydney Harris, American journalist for the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times

Effective communication means taking responsibility for the whole communication cycle—being clear on your expectations and ensuring that the listener understands what you’re asking him or her to do.

Effective communication begins with actively listening to your employees and paying attention to both the content (the “what”) and the intent (the “why”) of the message. To confirm your understanding, periodically summarize what you have heard. Ask probing questions that can help you get to the heart of any challenges the employee may be facing in completing a task. Also, pay attention to nonverbal communication (the “how” of the message). As you listen, be empathetic and nonjudgmental.

When it is your time to speak, be honest, not threatening. Remember that effective feedback is not about dishing out criticism; rather, it’s about identifying solutions to help your employees achieve tasks. Of course, an employee’s performance may require an “official” discussion that may kick off the process of termination; in your day-to-day coaching efforts, however, it’s best to use feedback to generate a wider range of options to pursue while creating ownership and accountability by the employee.

Even more critical, though, feedback must be both actionable and objective in order to establish clear expectations and outcomes. Feedback does not meet those goals if it

  • judges individuals, not actions.
  • is too vague.
  • speaks for other vs. what you have observed.
  • ping-pongs between negative and positive messages.
  • psychoanalyzes the motives behind behavior.
  • goes on too long.
  • contains an implied threat.
  • uses inappropriate humor.
  • is a question, not a statement.
  • is general and vague (rather than observable and measurable).

To be actionable and accountable, feedback must

  • be specific: it is based on objective firsthand experience and observation of job performance.
  • identify the action or behavior: it constructively, clearly, and specifically describes the action or behavior for which feedback is being provided.
  • describe what did or didn’t work: it cites specific examples of how the individual was or was not completely effective in certain instances.
  • suggest what should be done differently: it suggests an alternative way of acting or behaving that would result in improve performance.
  • provide an acceptable benefit: it pinpoints an area in which you and the recipient believe improvement would benefit her or him, the department, and the company.
  • be followed-up on: progress toward improvement is tracked (after all, feedback without follow-up wastes both your time and your employees’ time as it says you don’t really care).

I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable.

—John Russell, managing director of Harley Davidson Europe Ltd.

There are many ways to provide feedback through coaching sessions. For example, some people want very structured feedback, whereas others prefer more intuitive feedback. Regardless of your particular style, keep in mind that GROWing your employeescoaching is about GROWing your employees:

  • Goal—define the short-term goals of each coaching session and how they fit into the project’s long-term goals.
  • Reality—understand the current status of the project or objective and where employees stand in their ability to complete the task.
  • Options—empower employees to come up with other options or new possibilities that they may not have envisioned. (You may have to step in and assist, but your goal is to help employees come up with solutions on their own so that they are actively thinking of—and learning—new ways to approach problem solving.)
  • Will—determine what the employee will do next. (Lay out a plan with the new options you’ve helped the employee uncover.)

This formula can be used over and over to improve both existing and new projects. It can also help your employees develop increasingly complex skills. After all, practice makes perfect: the more you work on delivering effective feedback, the better you’ll be at it.

Do you have specific questions on delivering feedback? Let’s hear ’em!

Check out my next blog to help get back on track to accomplish your goals by year’s end.

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