Feeding the Feedback Monster

Your employees need to know how they’re doing — hopefully, that is not a new idea to you. You want them to keep doing the good stuff and stop doing the bad, but they need to know which is which, and it is not always obvious to them. Even when it IS obvious, sometimes they need a little reminder about what is important.

Your feedback to employees should be based on objectives you have agreed to. You and your employee should sit down and come up with a set of objectives they should meet during a particular period of time. These should be challenging but attainable, and you should have some way to measure progress, even if it is an “I will know it when I see it” kind of thing. These objectives should be based on the firm’s requirements…look at your strategic plan and decide what they should be striving for. Just make sure you both understand what the employee should be doing.

Try to have regularly scheduled feedback sessions. For newer employees this could be every 3 months, while more experienced employees might sit down with you every 6. Whatever schedule you set, and stick to it. Of course, you can certainly offer more feedback than what is required by a company’s schedule. If there is a problem, or if they are doing particularly well, do not be afraid to step in earlier, but definitely do not go any longer than the timeline you’ve agreed to…they will start to lose respect for the feedback if you treat it as unimportant.

Have them keep track of the things they do so you can have a more informed feedback session. If someone is your assistant and they are the only employee working for you, you can probably keep track of what they are doing, but if you have 20 people then a lot of things will be happening out of your sight. Having them keep a record of their work also gives you a chance to see what they consider most important, and that can be especially helpful if your view on that and theirs do not match up.

Focus on the future, not on history. The whole idea behind performance feedback is to improve performance in the future, not just to study history. What does their past performance suggest about their future potential? Is the company going through changes that will require a different kind of performance, a differ t set of skills? Do they show potential to improve and change to meet the company’s future needs, or have they gone as far as they can go?

When offering feedback I like to use what I call “the sandwich approach.” That is, I start with things they have done well and set a positive tone. Then I get into the problems they are having, with an eye toward improvement more than blame, and then I finish up with positive items again so the session ends on a good note and the chance of them being defensive about the criticisms is reduced.

Do not go overboard with the praise. If you are always telling them how great they are, even for the smallest things, then the value of that praise drops a lot. I once had a boss tell me “good job” so often, and for such little things, that when we finally had a formal feedback session I really did not care because I knew he would say “good job” for tying my shoes right. Make them earn the praise, and make sure your criticism is only for things that matter, too.

Feedback should be a conversation, not a lecture. If they are having problems, try to find out why they think that is. See how they view their performance and you will have a better idea of what they see as their role in the firm. This might not be the place to ask for feedback on your own leadership style — knowing you are going to ask them that question could influence the feedback you give them — but definitely get a sense of how they feel about their own performance to go along with your own perceptions.

If they have met the objectives you agreed to, then it may be time for new ones. As discussed above, use these sessions to look at not just what they’ve done but also what they can do in the future. Once objectives are met it is time for new challenges.

Lastly, you should document these sessions. There is a good reason, and an unspoken one. The good reason is, you want them to have something to refer back to later so they can see where they are performing well, see where they need to improve, and understand how they have changed over time. The unspoken reason is, if you decide to fire them, you want a record of all the chances you have given them to improve and all the discussions you’ve had about their poor performance.

Good employee feedback is critical to growing a business and growing employees. Many of us prefer to avoid conflict or discussing less-than-happy topics, but that’s what we pay leaders to do. In most knowledge-based work, where progress and success cannot always be measured by numbers or graphs or other objective means, you have to do something really unusual to help your employees understand how well they are doing: you have to actually talk to them.

(Get information here on our Performance Review workshop)

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