Several decades ago, I sat eagerly awaiting my first performance review with my boss. As a newly minted mechanical engineer, I wanted desperately to make a positive impression and validate the company’s decision to hire me straight out of school. In my supervisor’s office, I sat nervously awaiting his feedback. My boss, David, had been with the firm for more than a decade and had done performance reviews with his direct reports ad nauseum during the years. To him, this was just another discussion he’d had with the many snot nosed kids this top secret defense program had hired right out of college.
Without much flourish, David jumped into his feedback about my performance during the past year. Immediately, I could tell that while this was special for me, it was just another day at the office for him. I sat listening intently, taking notes furiously, hoping to catch every nuance in his commentary. He began, as you’d expect, with the things I’d done well. Fairly specific and presenting some new observations, I had heard most of what he covered previously in our weekly one-on-ones. Not much new but good confirming stuff nonetheless.
I nervously took a quick breath and steeled myself for what I knew would be hard for me to hear; where I fell short. Intellectually I knew that it was a necessary part of the process but emotionally, it was hard for me to hear. I noticed David was nervous also, shifting in his chair and fidgeting with his paperwork. Looking across the desk, I could see that he had a fairly long list of issues. That’s when I really started to worry.
After what seemed like an eternity, David finally finished reviewing his list of my areas for improvement. I sat there stunned. Most of it, I’d never heard before. Never mentioned, never discussed, it hit me out of the blue. Without hesitation or thought, I asked him how long he had been observing these shortcomings in my performance. He replied casually, “For about the last six months.” Stunned by his answer and in a state of disbelief, I shot back, “Then, why didn’t you tell me six months ago?”
We Don’t Aim To Fail
See, people don’t take a job to fail. In fact, the reality is most people want to succeed. The problem is we’re going to make mistakes, not meet expectations and sometimes fall short. Its also why the skill of giving feedback is so important to the role of a leader and in developing people. Without it, we often keep making the same mistakes. Not because we want to but sometimes in a new role, we’re unconsciously incompetent and make them without knowing.
How To Effectively Give Feedback
Giving feedback effectively includes following these six rules:
• Focus on the behavior, not the intention. Never question someone’s intent. Assume they wanted to do the job well. It’s the behavior that may have fallen short. Usually, people can deal with changing their behavior more objectively. Attacking someone’s intent to under-perform tends to be more personal and difficult to accept.
• Give feedback frequently. If you want to help someone change their behavior, then giving them feedback consistently and often will help them change faster. Waiting and allowing more time to pass, just allows bad habits more time to set in and the delivery more difficult to deliver without emotion. Give feedback while the memory is fresh. Catch it the first time. Don’t wait till the fourth or fifth time you’ve observed it. It only gets tougher to deliver the message.
• Be fact based. Stick with the facts or your personal observations, not hearsay, gotten second hand from someone else or through some other obscure means.
• Catch people doing things right. Giving feedback doesn’t have to be negative or pointing out where someone went wrong. In fact, neuroscientists tell us that if we want to reinforce new habits, its important we catch people doing things right. That focus or attention actually reinforces new neural connections that help us establish new patterns of behavior.
• Identify the specific task. Often I see leaders miss the mark in giving feedback effectively because they’re not specific enough for the person to know what has to change. Talking about the “job” or the “role” isn’t granular enough for people to act on. It’s the task. For example, the “job” might be washing the car but the task the follower needs to improve is cleaning the windows.
• Clarify what doing it well looks like. Remind the follower what the end game is. Chances are they may have forgotten or remember only a part of the goal. Describe in full detail what has to be accomplished and provide the context for “why” it’s important.
• Be effective, not efficient. In this world of email, text messages and Instagram, take the time to deliver the feedback in person if possible, by phone if it’s not and avoid any electronic means of delivering the message. I heard years ago, “Be efficient with things, be effective with people.” Delivering the message face to face communicates your value in the relationship.
Being an effective leader can be challenging. It’s also what we see in organizations that makes the biggest difference in the performance of the firm. If you’re interested in becoming more effective, contact us at Think2Perform.
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and the chief operating officer at Think2Perform, a business and sports performance firm that improves bottom-line results for executives, athletes and organizations such as American Express, Ameriprise Financial, Comerica Bank, Boston Scientific, United Health Group, the FBI, 3M, the Minnesota Twins and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He resides in Edwards with his wife Lori and their three children. Think2Perform is a partner of the Vail Chamber and Business Association. They offer a series of “Breakthrough for Business” workshops throughout the year, helping local businesses achieve their best practices. To learn more visit www.vailchamber.org or www.think2perform.com.