make useless performance feedback helpful

How to Make No-good, Useless Performance Feedback Helpful

Don’t let useless performance feedback sap motivation.

My phone buzzed with a text message from Amena, a young manager. “Just had annual eval – most useless performance feedback ever.”

I’d coached this woman—a hardworking, strategic thinker who passionately cared about the company and its customers. Another text quickly followed the first: “My eval was ‘good’ on everything except where I was ‘very good’ at getting along with people.”

Which was rapidly followed by this:

useless performance feedback text

Have you experienced her frustration? Too often, meaningless platitudes followed by a vague assertion that something you’ve never heard about should have been better are the norm.

Because many managers lack the courage or know-how to give meaningful feedback and help their people grow, they default to no-good, useless performance feedback that isn’t just a waste of time—it’s painful and destructive.

But like you, most leaders don’t intend to give poor feedback or hurt people, so what goes wrong?

Characteristics of Useless Performance Feedback

Three characteristics make performance feedback so destructive. If you can identify and avoid these three problems, you’re on your way to helping your people achieve great results and becoming a leader they can rely on and trust.

Problem #1: One-sided Feedback

People need to hear what they’re doing well. They also need to know where they aren’t getting the job done. Many managers err on one side or the other.

Some managers hang in the land of “great work, love what you’re doing” and never address real performance concerns or tell their people how they can grow. This frustrates people who want to do a good job. Your top performers want to excel, and if you don’t help them, they’ll find a leader who will.

Other managers live in the world of “I’ll encourage you when it’s perfect—and there’s no such thing as perfect.” This one-sided barrage of critical feedback and improvement plans demoralizes people. If nothing they do will ever be good enough, why bother?

Solution: Balance your Ratios

People need encouragement and they need to hear what’s not working. You get more of what you encourage and celebrate, less of what you criticize and ignore. So, address both.

Consistently encourage what’s working. When someone isn’t performing well, talk about it. However, unless your team member has specifically asked for feedback, avoid the dreaded “sandwich method” where you shove something negative between two niceties.

That feels manipulative—or they might focus on your positive comments and ignore what you were really trying to say.

Problem #2: Vague Feedback

Another critical feedback mistake is to speak in vague generalities. Examples include the feedback Amena received that she hadn’t “been very productive in the last three months” as well as statements like:

  • “You’re doing great.”
  • “You rocked it back there.”
  • “You need to step up.”
  • “You’ve got a great/poor attitude.”

Notice that both encouraging and critical feedback can be vague and general. There are a couple of problems with vague feedback. First, the person doesn’t know what they did well (or poorly) so it’s unlikely to reinforce or change behavior.

Second, when you address a general characteristic, like someone’s attitude, you’ve put yourself in an impossible situation. You can’t actually know what their attitude is. Their attitude is an internal set of feelings and thoughts. You’re not seeing an attitude; you’re seeing behaviors that you interpret as a great or poor attitude.

Speaking in vague generalities often results in frustration, misunderstandings, and doesn’t encourage performance.

Solution: Address Specific Behaviors

When you encourage someone, be specific about what they did and why it mattered. Eg: “I really appreciate the extra time you spent solving that client’s problem this morning. I know they’re difficult. You showed so much patience. They called me this afternoon to let me know how much they appreciate the firm and will be renewing their account.”

When you need to share feedback about something that isn’t going well, you can use the INSPIRE Method to plan for and hold the conversation. The N step in INSPIRE stands for “Noticing” a specific behavior.

Be specific. Eg: “I noticed that you came into the meeting fifteen minutes after it started.” Or “I noticed that when your colleagues brought up ideas in this morning’s meeting, you interrupted them with negative comments.”

Where a vague generality leads to defensiveness, a specific observation is the start of a conversation.

Problem #3: Delayed Feedback

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the feedback Amena received is that she didn’t hear about it for months.

Without looking at your calendar, you probably don’t remember what you did three weeks ago, much less three months. When you wait weeks or months to reflect on someone’s performance, you have no chance of changing behavior.

Moreover, as Amena shouted in her text, if it was wrong back then, why didn’t you say something? It’s a fair question. Formal performance evaluations should never contain any surprises.

Solution: Do it Now

Encourage and redirect your people as close as possible to the event you’re reacting to. The more time that goes by, the less meaningful your feedback.

One barrier to quick feedback is unclear or vague expectations. One of the most common problems leaders bring us are team members who aren’t performing to their expectations. We always ask two questions:

1) If we asked the person what success looks like, would they have the same answer you do?

If not, that’s the first conversation to have. Reset expectations and go from there.

(Often, the leader will ask us, “Do I really need to do that? Shouldn’t they just know?” The answer is yes, you do; and no, they won’t. Be clear and eliminate any possibility of misunderstanding.)

2) Have you told them that there’s a problem?

Too often, the answer to this question is version of “No, not really.” It’s magical thinking to believe that someone will spontaneously decide that their behavior isn’t working when all the evidence they have says that everything is fine. Have an INSPIRE conversation that gets results and builds the relationship.

Your Turn

You can transform useless performance feedback into helpful, energizing, and productive conversations when you consistently encourage, correct when needed, address specific behaviors, and share feedback quickly.

We’d love to hear from you, what’s your number one way to prevent no-good, useless performance feedback and have productive conversations that help everyone grow?

See Also: Avoid These Infuriating Phrases When Giving End-Of-Year Feedback

How to Get Better Feedback

5 Ways to Get Better Feedback: Avoid the Diaper Genie

If you’ve bumped into us in an airport over the last 5 years, it’s likely we’ve been carrying a diaper genie. Why? It’s all about how to get and give better feedback. We’ve used this metaphor in so many programs, our son can even deliver it (as seen here in a program where our client requested he perform a cameo–in Bristol England).

Note: If you’ve stumbled onto this post, you’re reading one of my earliest raw insights on having tough conversations that I shared on my blog the very first year I started writing.

I’m not changing the original post below to preserve the journey. But instead will offer some of our more updated thinking on the topic in the video and links below.

 

Read These For More Insights

Fast Company: This 7 Step Guide to Giving Out Feedback is Completely Idiot Proof

American Management Association:  5 Tips for Increasing Worker Morale and Productivity in the New Yea

5 Signs Diaper Drama is Destroying Your Culture

Why Ditching the Diaper Genie Will Reduce Turnover

The Classic: 5 Ways to Get Better Feedback Post That Started It All

Today’s post is a direct response to a subscriber’s question:

I took my first real leadership position when my oldest son was still in diapers. Every time I used our diaper genie, I thought, this is just how this hard feedback works. Each level takes the poop and seals it in a bag before it gets sent to the next level up. Then, that level sanitizes it some more with another layer of protection. By the time it gets to the top, it smells pretty benign.

I would love to hear your thoughts on eliciting candid feedback from your team and stakeholders? How do you get your team to take the risk of saying what needs to be said to those in power? How do you go about it? What suggestions do you have to do this effectively?”

Diaper genies work great for babies but are a dangerous leadership tool.

So how do you get your employees to tell you the truth?

How do you ask for feedback in a way that feels safe?

5 Ways To Get More Feedback from Your Team

Create an Environment of Trust

When I put this question out on my Let’s Grow Leaders Facebook page for insights, Eric Dingler shared:

You have to start with the end in mind. I think the best way is to have a culture of trust to start with. If you have a reputation of being a jerk and closed off to input, no trick will work. Once you have a culture of trust. You can simply ask for feedback. If you don’t feel like you are getting feedback, you’ve probably failed to establish a safe environment.

For more on creating a trusting environment see, A Matter of Trust: Why I Trust You, Why I Don’t.

Model it

I often see managers say to their employees, “I am wide open to feedback,” but then discourage their employees from being open with others above them. Or worse, they model their fear of repercussions. Employees will always listen to what you do more than what you say. If you are open in giving honest feedback to your boss, your team will be more likely to give you truthful feedback as well.

Ask

There are many ways to ask for feedback on both a formal and informal basis. I use one-on-ones to do this on a regular basis, so the feedback is casual and frequent. I also ask for feedback more formally during mid-year and end-of-year reviews. Employee surveys can also be good. Read more about feedback in Feedback: Getting Great Insights From People Who Matter.

Respond Elegantly

Start with “thank you.” Always. Watch how you react, not just with your words, but with your face, eyes, and body language. Listen attentively and react calmly, even if you disagree with the feedback. Work to understand the perceptions, even if you know there is more to the story.

Close the Loop

When given the gift of formal and informal feedback, be sure to close the loop. Recap what you heard. If you are going to take action, share that. Circle back and ask for feedback on your progress. Closure helps to build the trust, and encourages future feedback.

Your Turn: What would you add? 

Who's Really Writing Your Performance Appraisal?

The best leaders I know have one song stuck in their head as they enter performance appraisal season.

“I can’t get no satisfaction? Nope

“You can’t always get what you want?” I sure hope not.

I see them humming, that old Christmas classic, “Do you Hear What I Hear?”

Where The Input Begins

Great performance appraisals are not written in a vacuum.

Chances are your boss is looking from a good bit of input into your performance appraisal.

Great leaders know they only have one perspective.

They go for more, and ask around. Hopefully, that starts with you. Here’s your chance to influence the situation. There are at least four places your manager is looking to for input.

You

The tangible results are the most important part of the performance appraisal. You are in a position to highlight some of your key accomplishments. Hopefully you had a performance agreement, or list of goals and measures you agreed to near the beginning of the year. If not, take the lead and share tangible results with your boss. Position it carefully as helpful input to lighten the load.

Focus on outcomes. What is the % improvement over last year? What is the retention and success rate of the new hires you mentored? Avoid highlighting results that just measure activity. “I visited 25 locations.” “I trained 15 classes.” It’s also fine to share some of the behind-the-scenes work your boss may have missed– particularly work you did for other workgroups or special projects.

Your Peers

A recent study by TribeHR of 20,000 employees found 85% of the recognition employees receive throughout the year comes from peers, not bosses. And, the amount of recognition correlates to end-of-year raises. I don’t know the ins and outs of the study, but I believe the premise. While employees are not supposed to talk about ratings or pay, I always assume something will leak out. It’s important that the people rated at the top are viewed as key contributors, and their peers would smile and say, ‘well deserved, that makes sense.”

Other Key Stakeholders

This is important no matter what kind of role you are in. Are you in HR? You boss will likely ask those you support about your style and impact. Are you in a field job? Your boss may go to Finance and ask how you are to work with. No, it’s not time to go buy pumpkin cheesecakes for all your staff support. However, it is good to know that others may be asked for input and to consider that in your interactions throughout the year.

Their Peers

Not everyone does this. I always do. Before anyone submits a rating, I always meet with my direct reports as a group to go through anyone being rated on either end of the performance spectrum. It always leads to interesting dialogue about perceptions and hidden interactions. Ideally, you do it a few times a year, so nothing new surfaces this late in the game.

You want everyone in that meeting nodding enthusiastically when your boss submits you for a top rating.

Who’s Really Writing Your Performance Appraisal?

The best leaders I know have one song stuck in their head as they enter performance appraisal season.

“I can’t get no satisfaction? Nope

“You can’t always get what you want?” I sure hope not.

I see them humming, that old Christmas classic, “Do you Hear What I Hear?”

Where The Input Begins

Great performance appraisals are not written in a vacuum.

Chances are your boss is looking from a good bit of input into your performance appraisal.

Great leaders know they only have one perspective.

They go for more, and ask around. Hopefully, that starts with you. Here’s your chance to influence the situation. There are at least four places your manager is looking to for input.

You

The tangible results are the most important part of the performance appraisal. You are in a position to highlight some of your key accomplishments. Hopefully you had a performance agreement, or list of goals and measures you agreed to near the beginning of the year. If not, take the lead and share tangible results with your boss. Position it carefully as helpful input to lighten the load.

Focus on outcomes. What is the % improvement over last year? What is the retention and success rate of the new hires you mentored? Avoid highlighting results that just measure activity. “I visited 25 locations.” “I trained 15 classes.” It’s also fine to share some of the behind-the-scenes work your boss may have missed– particularly work you did for other workgroups or special projects.

Your Peers

A recent study by TribeHR of 20,000 employees found 85% of the recognition employees receive throughout the year comes from peers, not bosses. And, the amount of recognition correlates to end-of-year raises. I don’t know the ins and outs of the study, but I believe the premise. While employees are not supposed to talk about ratings or pay, I always assume something will leak out. It’s important that the people rated at the top are viewed as key contributors, and their peers would smile and say, ‘well deserved, that makes sense.”

Other Key Stakeholders

This is important no matter what kind of role you are in. Are you in HR? You boss will likely ask those you support about your style and impact. Are you in a field job? Your boss may go to Finance and ask how you are to work with. No, it’s not time to go buy pumpkin cheesecakes for all your staff support. However, it is good to know that others may be asked for input and to consider that in your interactions throughout the year.

Their Peers

Not everyone does this. I always do. Before anyone submits a rating, I always meet with my direct reports as a group to go through anyone being rated on either end of the performance spectrum. It always leads to interesting dialogue about perceptions and hidden interactions. Ideally, you do it a few times a year, so nothing new surfaces this late in the game.

You want everyone in that meeting nodding enthusiastically when your boss submits you for a top rating.