How to make performance reviews count

The end of the school term is here and the thought of report cards reminded me of workplace "report cards," traditionally known as employee performance reviews. Historically, these reports were not done at all and/or were done hurriedly, at the last minute.

Today’s approach to performance reviews most often includes a series of regular formal and informal feedback sessions, where goals and objectives are reviewed — accompanied by a discussion of what is going well, where some challenges might lie and how to improve, if necessary.

If provided effectively, feedback can inspire and lift up employees, encourage them to do their best work and contribute to overall job satisfaction. On the other hand, sporadic, untimely and/or poorly delivered feedback can create anger, discouragement and demotivation.

In fact, it is well-known that employees react to negative feedback and interactions much more strongly than to a positive interaction. Thus, being able to provide effective employee feedback sometimes is referred to as a "delicate art," but it indeed something that can be learned.

Employees want feedback and they want to stay on track with their work. In some cases, if employees don’t receive feedback, they may wander away from their duties and engage in what I call "job creep."

This means that eventually, employees will be doing more of what they want to do rather than what they need to be doing.

Sometimes when there is little to no feedback, it can take years to find out that how far astray an employee has gone.

On the other hand, there will always be employees who has an inflated view of themselves and their contribution to the organization. In both cases, the lack of feedback to these employees has prevented them from being self-aware of their behaviour or work habits.

The following tips will help you to use feedback as an effective management tool to help employees grow.

Make feedback fit

Feedback needs to fit the person. In other words, we need to "coach them where they are at." For instance, if employees are new to their job, they are considered unconsciously incompetent. In other words, they don’t know what they don’t know... they are just learning. Feedback and guidance in this case need to focus on the technical where and what of doing their job. On the other hand, more seasoned, well-functioning employees often prefer to receive feedback that is a "critique" of their work rather than a focus on positive feedback.

Be time-conscious

Feedback should be delivered in a timely manner, normally immediately after a project has been submitted and/or a challenge has been identified. This will ensure the employees connect the feedback with their actions and/or work. If the feedback and/or criticism is related to an inappropriate behaviour, then time should be taken to review the circumstances prior to providing feedback.

Be prepared

Take time to think through what you want to say and how you will say it. Think about how the employee will react when receiving your message. Think about whether your feedback should be given in a private or public setting. If the employee is quite introverted, then a public setting might be embarrassing, so be careful. If the feedback is negative, always conduct your discussion in private.

Link feedback

Always link your feedback to the goals of a project and/or to the overall goals of the organization — such as customer service, speed of response, teamwork and/or quality work. Help employees understand the impact of their work and/or behaviour on the organization.

Be specific

Constructive feedback usually is very specific with respect to what has been done well and what areas could be improved. For instance, if reviewing a written report, a manager needs to highlight specific areas, such as sentence structure or reference to a conclusion or the facts referred to. Being too general will fail to provide guidance because the employee is left to read between the lines and decode your message.

Focus on the positive

If the feedback is meant as guidance and not corrective action, then start the conversation by showing appreciation for their efforts. Point out some positive elements of the work prior to identifying areas for improvement. Be careful to balance the positive/negative or else the real message for improvement will get lost. As well, ensure your own voice tone is positive throughout the conversation.

Offer additional help

Take time to ask the employee how you as manager can continue to help. You might be surprised to find the employee lacks self-confidence and/or would benefit from additional training in specific areas. Express confidence in the employee, always be open to listening and assistance in problem solving, developing an action plan and giving needed support.

Be authentic

No matter whether the feedback is positive or negative, it is important that your feedback is perceived as honest and straightforward. People easily can see through feedback that is over-the-top and that may in turn cause it to be misinterpreted.

Consistency is king

Providing ongoing feedback in a consistent, regular manner is more effective than suddenly adopting a feedback strategy but then not carrying it out over the year. Employees soon will discount and dismiss your feedback. Being consistent helps to develop trust and credibility of your message. Then, in a situation where negative criticism is the order of the day, it will be much more accepted and respected and will lead to improvement.

Providing effective feedback is a communication skill that requires the ability to facilitate an open discussion, where both parties come to a shared understanding versus a one-way dialogue with the manager doing all the talking.

It should provide an opportunity for the employee to ask questions for clarification with a team approach to setting new learning goals.

Feedback is one of the most effective management tools available; however, it is not easy. Therefore, managers must learn to consistently apply a constructive communication approach during their feedback.

This prevents the employee from becoming defensive and allows for the development of a positive relationship even while addressing workplace challenges.

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