Poorly delivered feedback can leave the recipient feeling demotivated and unappreciated. It can have the opposite effect of what is intended. It’s no wonder many faces will frown at the mention of performance reviews. Let’s flip the script!
by Milica Radojevic — March 28, 2023
Feedback can be difficult to hear, especially when it highlights our weaknesses or flaws. How it is delivered can make all the difference. In performance reviews, there’s also the power dynamic between the giver (manager) and the receiver (employee). There is much at stake for the person on the receiving end – their confidence, self-esteem, reputation, and even job security. This can result in a range of emotions, including anger, defensiveness, insecurity, and the feeling of being attacked.
If done correctly, feedback can be a valuable learning experience that encourages discussion and deepens the trust between the manager and the employee. In this article, we will focus on the techniques that can help reduce discomfort and deliver effective improvement feedback that resonates with the receiver.
Giving feedback is a skill that can be trained, and there are plenty of excellent frameworks out there that can help us introduce structure and feel more confident in these situations, i.e. Radical Candor, Situation-Behaviour-Impact, Start-stop-continue, etc. At Blinkist, we apply the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) method that emphasizes active listening, empathetic communication, and the use of non-judgmental language to express oneself.
In the NVC method, the first step is sharing observations of what has happened, while refraining from any evaluation or judgment, focusing on observable facts. Next, we express our own emotions regarding these observations, such as feeling hurt, disappointed, scared, etc. In the next step, we share what needs of ours are connected to emotion. The final step is stating a clear request to the other person that would help avoid those unpleasant feelings.
Observation: “During our team meeting yesterday, you seemed a bit absent in thought. You didn’t contribute any ideas, and I noticed you were often looking at your phone. This has happened a few times before.”
Feeling: “I felt frustrated because I wanted to hear your thoughts as I value your input. I also felt worried because the other team members might think you don’t listen and appreciate their ideas.”
Need: “I need to ensure that our team meetings are the best use of everyone’s time. I also need all perspectives heard to make the best decision for the team.”
Request: “I would like you to listen to others more carefully in our team meetings, and share your thoughts more proactively. It would be valuable for all of us. Would you be willing to do that?”
By using this format, the giver can provide feedback in a way that is non-judgmental and based on specific observations rather than assumptions or personal opinions. This approach creates a safe space for the receiver to receive feedback without feeling attacked or defensive.
Simply offering instructions and criticism in a way that shuts down further discussion is not effective. Instead, managers should try to solicit a response and offer space where the individual can process the feedback, respond to it, and choose how to act on it.
Managers can use a set of guiding questions, like the ones offered below, to encourage reflection and understand how the feedback has been perceived by the individual and what they are willing to take from it:
While we don’t always agree with what others perceive as our strengths or areas for improvement, understanding how our behaviors affect others and how we come across can lead to more productive relationships at work.
Feedback should be given regularly and timely, at a time when someone is expecting it. Therefore, feedback must be embedded in the culture and team rituals.
Relying on an annual performance review is not enough. People should not be kept in the dark about their performance only to be caught off guard when they hear all of it at once. On the contrary, when it comes to performance reviews, most feedback should already be well-known to the receiver, especially that which indicates improvement areas.
At Blinkist, we encourage regular feedback sharing through various initiatives, such as mandating feedback exchanges in one-on-one meetings, organizing feedback weeks, and enabling public appraisal.
The responsibility for building a feedback culture does not only lie with the manager. Teams and individuals should actively seek feedback, commit to continuous self-improvement, and take charge of their development.
Self-improvement is an integral part of our culture, so much so it is outlined in our Employee Handbook!
Most of us are already aware of our shortcomings. We may even have a plan in place to address them. Rather than initiating the conversation about their weaknesses and offering your perspective, consider inviting the employee to bring up the topic themselves. Encourage them to describe the issue and discuss potential solutions.
Ask open-ended questions such as, “What areas do you think you could improve on?” or “What challenges have you encountered in your role?” Keep the conversation focused on solutions. If there are too many topics, ask the person to choose one that they would like to discuss in that meeting.
By putting the individual in the driver’s seat, you create a safe space for dialogue that empowers them to take ownership of their development. This approach fosters a culture of accountability.
It is important, though, that this conversation doesn’t come out of the blue. Otherwise, the receiver might feel unprepared and cornered, affecting how the feedback is received. Well-delivered feedback shared at the wrong time is sure to be wasted. Consider scheduling a recurrent feedback session, or including feedback in your weekly one-on-one meetings as suggested above. This way, when improvement feedback is brought up, it will not be perceived as something unusual or sudden.
Focusing on what’s possible versus what’s broken is a more effective way to drive change. Feedback should be given to help people become the best version of themselves, by emphasizing their strengths and potential rather than reminding them of their mistakes and weaknesses.
Dwelling on the past can be counterproductive and damaging. Teams can often get bogged down in a cycle of blame and guilt, with everyone fixated on what went wrong in the past. This atmosphere doesn’t promote innovation and growth; it just leads to resentment and frustration. The start-stop-continue format is a great way to turn feedback into action and make clear commitments for the future.
As leaders, our most important job is to enable growth, and feedback is our most powerful tool. When delivered incorrectly, criticism can have the opposite effect on performance. Even worse – it can damage the relationship between the manager and the employee which makes any further feedback ineffective.
Fortunately, some techniques can help us structure and present our thoughts in a way that prevents these negative emotions and helps the message come across.
Ideally, feedback is an ongoing, iterative conversation between a manager and their team. In a perfect world, it’s a two-way dialogue that encourages reflection and discussion. One of the most important elements is the intention behind feedback – genuine feedback comes from a place of caring. The focus should be on the future, and the feedback should always be aimed at helping the receiver improve and develop.
Healthy feedback habits are what make these conversations feel comfortable and normal. Embedding feedback into meetings and team rituals, and creating an expectation that feedback should be proactively solicited, makes building a culture of the feedback everyone’s business in the organization.
Milica Radojevic is the Head of People at Blinkist, leading Talent Development, Talent Acquisition, and People Operations. She loves hacking into how things work and finding ways to optimize and innovate in processes.
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