By Glenn Leibowitz
Stay focused. Listen carefully. Be compassionate.
I’ll never forget one of the first courses I took at Wharton, where I was studying for my MBA many years ago. It was a course on leadership taught by Professor Stewart Friedman, founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program, and author of several bestselling and award-winning books on leadership and work-life balance.
In one of the very first classes he taught, he showed us a diagram to demonstrate a simple but very powerful concept: that through receiving regular feedback, and by acting on it, a person can make the changes he or she needs to achieve their goals for personal and professional growth. In his diagram, feedback was represented as a simple line leading to the Greek symbol for delta, which represented change. And from there, the line led to another symbol representing improvement.
While a lot of what I was taught at business school didn’t stick?–whether through lack of use on my part, or through fading relevance of the content over time?–this lesson about the power of feedback has stuck with me throughout my career, and has proven to be one of the most useful tools I keep in my communication toolbox.
I’ve been on the receiving end of an enormous quantity of feedback throughout the course of my career. While it is sometimes painful to listen to, I usually get something out of it. I still get formal and informal feedback, and I still find much of it useful in some way.
Several years ago, as I transitioned into a managerial role requiring me to lead others, I became the giver of such feedback, a skill that took me some time to develop. In the early days, I made a lot of mistakes. But over time, as I learned from my mistakes, and absorbed feedback from my mentors and managers about my own feedback delivery skills, I got better at it.
Here are six principles of giving effective performance feedback that I’ve learned over the years:
1. Make it relevant.
Everyone has their own professional and personal goals. Understanding what these are is essential to delivering effective feedback, because if what you’re telling someone isn’t aligned with their goals in some way, the impact of your feedback will be limited.
Are they looking for more responsibility and independence with their current role? Do they want to develop entirely new skills with a view to changing the nature of their role? Are they thinking about moving into an entirely different role? These are, of course, very different objectives, and if you don’t have a basic awareness of what your team member really wants, it will be that much more difficult to reach them and influence how they think and what they do through whatever feedback you may provide.
2. Stay focused.
There are so many ways to deliver feedback, and so many things you might want to say to someone. I suggest staying focused on a limited number of issues you want to address. Rattling off a long list of problems will likely put the person on the defensive and can potentially be demoralizing.
To ensure that you cover the points that matter most, and to stay on message, go into the feedback session with a clear plan for what you want to address in your conversation, and what you hope to accomplish by way of changes to mindsets, behaviors, and actions.
3. Provide context.
If you hope to influence someone through your feedback, you’ll be more effective if you provide context. Make the linkages very clear: How does their performance impact not only their own work, but also the work of the rest of your team, and, ultimately, the performance of your company?
4. Listen carefully.
As the deliverer of feedback, you might think you’re the one who is supposed to do much of the talking. I would resist this temptation and dial back your tendency to dominate the conversation and just listen to what your colleague has to say.
5. Be compassionate.
There’s so much language used in the workplace today that makes people sound like they’re just a bunch of machines with the sole purpose of producing widgets. Availability of someone to do a task is referred to as “having capacity” or “bandwidth,” for example.
But people are not machines, thankfully, and so when you have conversations with your team members, remember they’ve got a rich personal life they maintain outside of the office. Was your colleague’s daughter ill with the flu and unable to sleep for the past few nights because of persistent fever, which meant he also lost sleep and, as a consequence, didn’t turn in all of the work you were expecting from him?
Making sure your feedback landed in the right place with your team member, and that they actually take action to address whatever it is that you raised with them, requires following up and checking in with them again. Remember what you discussed, and, from time to time, refer back to what you agreed when you had your conversation.
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