Mastering the Art of Feedback

Closing the gap between goals and performance is a continual challenge for leaders. Mastering coaching skills can help close that gap. One of the most important skills to master is giving effective, and potentially difficult, feedback to others. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t born with natural talents in delivering challenging feedback, so some level of skill development is usually necessary.

Leaders with great coaching skills are adept at offering feedback that encourages learning, development and change — in good times and bad. They can deliver difficult information in a way that encourages behavior change. Feedback, as a core coaching skill, is delivering information and perspective to another person about an observable behavior.

How feedback is received, and whether it creates change, is all about how it is delivered. Many of us have a tendency to take challenging feedback personally. But most of us prefer feedback that is simple to understand, straightforward and presented in a non-accusatory style.

Here are some feedback delivery tips:

  • Consider timing. Feedback should be delivered as close to the observed behavior as possible. The year-end performance review is too late. Most people aren’t able to hear critical feedback (without getting defensive) when they are highly emotional or reactive. It’s much better to wait until people calm down and can hear it.
  • Prioritize critical behaviors. Too often, managers focus feedback on what bothers them in others versus identifying specific behaviors that drive performance. Or they give too much feedback at one time, which can overwhelm the person. The 80/20 rule applies — 80 percent of performance comes from about 20 percent of our behaviors. The best coaches identify critical behaviors, focus on key expectations and review specific behavioral changes that could significantly improve performance.
  • Be behaviorally specific. Encourage the employee to take responsibility by focusing on acts, not attitudes. State the information in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Effective feedback doesn’t leave the employee wondering what you meant. To be a great coach, you need to be a great observer. The best feedback is factual — what a video camera would have recorded. Just like playing the game tapes in preparation for the “big game,” managers use observable behaviors and patterns to help clarify the issues and identify behaviors that require change.
  • Identify change as a process versus an event. The most effective coaches provide ongoing feedback and encourage people to learn from their successes and failures. They set the expectation that feedback needs to be a two-way communication process; they are open to and encourage reciprocal feedback.
  • Identify impact. Great coaches illuminate “blind spots” so people see themselves as others see them. They provide feedback that identifies the consequence, feelings or impact of the behavior in question. It is not uncommon for individuals to be oblivious to the distress a simple comment or action can cause.
  • Define expectations. Feedback includes offering suggestions, direction or identifiable goals. What do you want the employee to do differently? An effective challenge can be to identify what you want more or less of: “I want more suggestions for solutions and fewer complaints during our meetings.”

Best-practice coaching and feedback requires different approaches for different situations.

Coaching the most talented people can be tricky. Providing feedback to high-performers often requires a different skill set and approach. By their very nature, high-performers are different — they get bored easily, and when in trouble may be difficult to challenge without negatively affecting motivation. High-performers tend to run at light speed while generating the kind of results that senior management loves — they require a specialized set of coaching skills to keep them challenged and on track.

Mastering feedback

Closing the gap between goals and performance is a continual challenge for leaders. Mastering coaching skills can help close that gap. One of the most important skills to master is giving effective, and potentially difficult, feedback to others. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t born with natural talents in delivering challenging feedback, so some level of skill development is usually necessary.

Leaders with great coaching skills are adept at offering feedback that encourages learning, development and change — in good times and bad. They can deliver difficult information in a way that encourages behavior change. Feedback, as a core coaching skill, is delivering information and perspective to another person about an observable behavior.

How feedback is received, and whether it creates change, is all about how it is delivered. Many of us have a tendency to take challenging feedback personally. But most of us prefer feedback that is simple to understand, straightforward and presented in a non-accusatory style.

Here are some feedback delivery tips:

  • Consider timing. Feedback should be delivered as close to the observed behavior as possible. The year-end performance review is too late. Most people aren’t able to hear critical feedback (without getting defensive) when they are highly emotional or reactive. It’s much better to wait until people calm down and can hear it.
  • Prioritize critical behaviors. Too often, managers focus feedback on what bothers them in others versus identifying specific behaviors that drive performance. Or they give too much feedback at one time, which can overwhelm the person. The 80/20 rule applies — 80 percent of performance comes from about 20 percent of our behaviors. The best coaches identify critical behaviors, focus on key expectations and review specific behavioral changes that could significantly improve performance.
  • Be behaviorally specific. Encourage the employee to take responsibility by focusing on acts, not attitudes. State the information in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Effective feedback doesn’t leave the employee wondering what you meant. To be a great coach, you need to be a great observer. The best feedback is factual — what a video camera would have recorded. Just like playing the game tapes in preparation for the “big game,” managers use observable behaviors and patterns to help clarify the issues and identify behaviors that require change.
  • Identify change as a process versus an event. The most effective coaches provide ongoing feedback and encourage people to learn from their successes and failures. They set the expectation that feedback needs to be a two-way communication process; they are open to and encourage reciprocal feedback.
  • Identify impact. Great coaches illuminate “blind spots” so people see themselves as others see them. They provide feedback that identifies the consequence, feelings or impact of the behavior in question. It is not uncommon for individuals to be oblivious to the distress a simple comment or action can cause.
  • Define expectations. Feedback includes offering suggestions, direction or identifiable goals. What do you want the employee to do differently? An effective challenge can be to identify what you want more or less of: “I want more suggestions for solutions and fewer complaints during our meetings.”

Best-practice coaching and feedback requires different approaches for different situations.

Coaching the most talented people can be tricky. Providing feedback to high-performers often requires a different skill set and approach. By their very nature, high-performers are different — they get bored easily, and when in trouble may be difficult to challenge without negatively affecting motivation. High-performers tend to run at light speed while generating the kind of results that senior management loves — they require a specialized set of coaching skills to keep them challenged and on track.

Performance Review Help

It’s that time of year again — time for the often-dreaded performance review.

Though we could easily debate the merits and imperfections in the review process of many companies, we will instead focus on how managers can better prepare to deliver an effective review.

Most managers want their people to come away from a review feeling acknowledged for what they do well, supported, engaged, motivated and clear about what is expected of them in terms of goals and future performance. Performance reviews are a critical and challenging task for any manager, and delivering them well requires considerable time and preparation.

When delivered well, performance reviews can drive improved business results for the organization and be powerful and motivating experiences for employees. Yet at the hand of the unskilled, those on the receiving end can feel like they’ve been run over by a truck. Poorly delivered reviews can result in demoralized, unmotivated or disgruntled employees — something most companies can ill afford.

In my coaching practice, clients often use me to help them prepare for a performance review (either as the one delivering the review or receiving it). Here are some typical complaints I hear from frustrated employees following their review (and how to avoid them):

“My review was totally subjective.” Stick with the facts; subjective comments lead to arguments.

“My boss couldn’t give me any examples.” Clarify the specific situation in which the behavior occurred to back up what you assert in the review.

“The feedback I got was vague.” Avoid generalizations or clichés, like, “You have common sense,” or “are a good leader.” Make clear the behavior you either want continued or changed.

“I was totally taken off guard.” Performance reviews shouldn’t be a surprise; managers should be providing ongoing and continuous performance feedback.

In my experience, most employees really do want to know how they are doing in their boss’s eyes, and want to understand how they can improve if they aren’t meeting expectations or what they need to demonstrate to be promoted. Unfortunately, many managers are simply unskilled and lack training in delivering this information.

Here are a few coaching tips to help you prepare for delivering a review:

  • Before conducting a review, get clear about your objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to recognize and motivate a strong contributor? Retain a “star”? Put a poor performer on notice? Help a new or young employee map out her future with the company? Clarify the employee’s role and/or your expectations? Your objectives should drive how you deliver the review and your focus.
  • Take the time necessary to prepare well (employees can tell when you have), and identify examples to share with the employee to help him understand your feedback. Consider how you will deliver the kind of feedback that will motivate the employee for any desired behavior change.
  • Schedule smartly to avoid low energy, for you and the employee. Reviews in general can be draining experiences. Avoid scheduling them back to back (or last thing in the day when most people’s energy is low). Allow sufficient time for a meaningful, two-way conversation.
  • Consider the emotional component. Identify your own emotions around delivering the review. How you manage your own emotions during the review is important (particularly if you are highly anxious). Anticipate the emotions of the person you will be reviewing. How might you respond if you were hearing this?
  • Review last year’s goals. Remember, it’s an “annual” review, not a review of just the past few weeks.
  • Choose your words carefully when you are describing the employee. Use language that specifies behaviors or observable actions vs. generalizations and/or inferences such as “not professional.” Define what you mean.
  • Look ahead to goal setting for the coming year, whether or not your company’s review process encourages this.
  • For loaded situations, get help (either a professional coach or your HR professional). Even the most capable manager can benefit from expert help in delivering bad news and preparing for anticipated rebuttals or resistance. Having an outside perspective or someone to role play with you can help you better prepare for how the employee may respond or react.

I offer coaching help to leaders anywhere in the world preparing for reviews.  mmoriarty@pathtochange.com or 360 682 5807.