In my early days of consulting, I remember being on a project that I didn’t like very much: it was very political, the hours were insane, much of the team was demoralized, and I had very little idea what was going on with the project overall, only a narrow view of what I was working on. Not surprisingly, I didn’t do my best work on this project, and I got a pretty abysmal performance rating at the end of the project. But, that negative performance rating still came as a surprise to me…because all throughout the project, I never received any feedback. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t doing great work, but in my naiveté at the time, I assumed that because my team leader wasn’t saying anything to me about my performance, I must be doing fine. When I read my written performance evaluation, a month or so after the project had ended, I remember feeling a sense of betrayal, thinking, “Why didn’t she ever say anything?”
As I later came to learn, this was not an unusual experience. In fact, as a project-based consultant, I at least received feedback at the end of each project. Many people have to wait for their annual performance review to get any kind of feedback on how they’re performing, and the “feedback” may entail nothing more than a few generic-sounding statements, such as one I heard recently: “doesn’t deal well with ambiguity.” What does that even mean? What is someone supposed to do with that?
When I became a team leader, one of the goals I set for myself was not to let any of the people on my teams suffer that same fate of not knowing how they’re doing until after the project had ended, and it was too late to do anything about it. I made a point of giving regular feedback to everyone on my team. I made a lot of mistakes, and there were many times when I got busy and didn’t give feedback as often as I should. That said, after several years of giving feedback to – and receiving feedback from – my team members, I’ve learned a number of lessons about the best ways to give and get feedback.
Lesson #1: Give frequent, real-time feedback
This one is a no-brainer: by praising people for doing things well, right after they do them, you’re giving them a powerful reinforcement to continue those positive behaviors. And similarly, when people don’t do so well, by talking with them soon afterwards about what went wrong and what they could have done differently, you’re giving them the best chance to course-correct by changing those behaviors.
But even though it’s so obvious, it so often doesn’t happen; people get busy and forget to give feedback, or they are uncomfortable having feedback conversations, so they put it off. They may not realize what a missed opportunity this is for coaching and development. Before long, they fall into the habit of not giving feedback, until weeks or months later, as part of a formal evaluation process. By then, the opportunity to learn and grow based on the feedback has been all but lost. Don’t make that mistake; get in the habit of giving frequent feedback to your team members, as close to real-time as possible. As a rule of thumb, I try to give feedback to each of my team members at least 2-3 times a week, and I try to give feedback within 24 hours, sooner if possible.
Lesson #2: Give positive feedback frequently and (sometimes) publicly
A lot of people think of feedback as having a negative connotation, implying that the only time to give someone feedback is when they have done something wrong. Perhaps because of this negative connotation, a lot of people refer to coaching instead of feedback. To me, coaching and feedback are related but separate things (see Lesson #4 for more on coaching). Feedback simply means “a reaction or response to a particular process or activity;” it can be positive, negative or neutral.
Ideally, the majority of feedback given should be positive feedback. As a rule of thumb, some people suggest that you aim to give positive feedback three times as often as you give negative feedback. It’s very important for people to know when they have done something well, as this not only reinforces the positive behavior, but even more importantly, it sends a message that you noticed and appreciate the good work they are doing. When employees are appreciated for their work, they tend to feel more engaged. By regularly praising your team members when they do something well, it’s a win-win situation.
While it’s not necessary to make a point of giving all positive feedback publicly, I find that for most people, being publicly praised for good work at least some of the time is especially motivating. Look for opportunities to publicly thank team members for their good work, such as bringing it up during a team meeting, giving them credit for their good work during a client presentation, or mentioning it in a company email.
Lesson #3: Give negative feedback privately and tactfully
Equally as important as giving people positive feedback when they do something well, giving negative feedback when people screw up, along with suggestions for improvement, is critical for helping people improve their performance. A lot of team leaders and managers find it extremely difficult and uncomfortable to give negative feedback; unfortunately, too many of them opt to take the easy way out and avoid giving negative feedback (or they give it much later, in the form of writing, instead of face-to-face, near real-time feedback). The team member suffers because he may not realize he did anything wrong, or even if he does, he may not know what to do about it. He loses out on an important opportunity to learn and grow from his mistakes. And the team as a whole often suffers if the team member’s bad performance continues, bringing down the overall performance of the team. It can also send a message to other team members that bad performance is tolerated.
To avoid this situation, give negative feedback when a team member performs poorly, as this creates an opportunity for him to improve his performance. As soon as possible, find time to speak privately with your team member. Of course it’s important to be tactful in giving negative feedback, but be careful not to water it down too much or bury it in between positive feedback, to the point that the message gets lost. I know a lot of people recommend starting and ending with positive feedback, with the negative feedback “sandwiched” in the middle, but I find this creates a risk that the only thing the team member takes away from the conversation is the positive feedback, and the main message gets lost. By giving regular positive feedback when your team member performs well, you can cut right to the chase when it’s time to give negative feedback. Your team member will still feel appreciated for the good work he has done, but he will also get the important message: he messed up, and you want to talk with him about what he could have done differently, to avoid making a similar mistake next time.
Lesson #4: Supplement feedback with coaching
To help your team members grow and develop from the feedback you give them, you need to supplement the feedback with coaching. Good coaching is a two-way discussion, where you ask your team member what he could have done differently, as well as offering your own suggestions if you think it’s helpful.
When giving positive feedback, tell your team member what he did well, and then supplement that with coaching on how he can take his already-strong performance to the next level. For example, if your team member did a great job leading a client interview, perhaps you could talk with him about creating an opportunity for him to deliver part of the next client presentation.
When giving negative feedback, tell your team member what you think didn’t go well, and then supplement that with coaching on what he could have done differently, and/or what he should plan to do differently next time. For example, if your team member does a poor job leading a client interview, talk through specific examples of what didn’t go well (e.g. you spoke too quickly which made you sound nervous, you forgot to cover some of the questions), ask him what he might do differently next time, and offer suggestions for leading future interviews. You could also help him practice with a mock interview scenario where you play the role of the client.
Regular coaching is such a critical part of employee development that you shouldn’t limit coaching to your feedback moments; you should provide regular, goal-oriented coaching to all of your team members. But coaching is a topic for another blog post, so I’ll leave it at that.
Lesson #5: Keep written notes of feedback to use for formal reviews
I find it helpful to keep an ongoing set of notes on each of the team members I work with, and whenever I give someone feedback, I make a written note of it. By the time we get to the end of a project, and I’m doing written performance evaluations for each of my team members, I simply reference my notes file and include many of the feedback examples in each person’s written evaluation. When the employees receive the written evaluation, it’s simply a summary of the feedback they’ve heard directly from me over the course of the project. There should never be any surprises in the written evaluation.
Lesson #6: Ask for feedback on your performance
Feedback should ideally be a two-way street. In addition to giving regular feedback to my team members, I regularly ask them to give me feedback on my performance. One of the best ways to grow and develop as a team leader is to get regular feedback – both positive and negative – on your performance. Admittedly, getting feedback is easier said than done. When I ask team members for feedback, I often get no feedback, or something along the lines of, “you’re doing a great job.”
Understandably, team members may be reluctant to give feedback to someone who is in a position to evaluate their performance. I find that over time, as I build up strong, trusting relationships with my team members, and I ask for feedback as part of a casual conversation, many of them are eventually willing to give me honest feedback, both positive and negative. But if they are not, instead of pushing too hard, I will come back to them at the end of the project, after my written evaluation has been submitted, and ask them for feedback on my performance at that point. It’s not ideal, but it’s still better than no feedback.
Another option to consider is using a survey tool to collect anonymous feedback from your team members. Though depending on team size, it can be hard to make it truly anonymous (and your team members know that), and it’s not as helpful as real-time, face-to-face feedback. If you make a habit of giving your team members continuous feedback, over time, you will likely find that they will be more willing to return the favor by giving feedback to you.
Lesson #7: Help build a culture of continuous feedback by encouraging everyone to give and ask for feedback
Ideally, companies should strive to build a culture of continuous feedback, where it’s common practice for everyone to regularly give and ask for feedback. When it’s part of the culture, people are more comfortable giving and soliciting feedback, and it becomes part of their ingrained working habits.
Like any culture change, this requires the full support of the company’s top leaders. They need to communicate the importance of continuous feedback, not only by frequently telling their employees, but also by demonstrating it through their own actions. If continuous feedback isn’t a part of your company’s culture, I recommend working with your company’s top leaders to get their full support in building this into the culture.
Share your feedback on feedback
Do you agree with the lessons I’ve shared? What are your thoughts and suggestions on the best ways to give feedback? What about suggestions on getting feedback on your own performance? Does your company have a culture of continuous feedback? I’d love to get your feedback!
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