The news that many organisations are turning away from formal performance appraisals gives HR and other organisational leaders the opportunity to reflect on how they manage staff performance. There is still some value in a formal meeting every six to 12 months, especially if it is reviewing achievements, focusing on strengths and planning for development. Formal appraisals that emphasise failures and gaps in a person’s abilities have been shown to have a negative effect on performance. However, even positive formal reviews rely on more frequent conversations to achieve performance improvement. And feedback on performance, whether the performance is good, bad or indifferent, is at the core of these conversations.
Conversations that improve the performance of teams and individuals can take many forms. Peer reviews of work, communities of practice and project meetings offer chances for people other than a line manager to provide feedback. They also create an environment where people can innovate and collaborate on solving problems. A healthy, accepting attitude to feedback is essential for these environments to be productive.
The conversations between a line manager and individual staff member continue to play an important role in organisations. Positive reinforcement from a line manager often carries more weight and is a key motivator for most people. A line manager has the authority to help a person access development and career opportunities many others can’t. In the case of performance not being up to standard, line managers still normally carry the responsibility to address the issue. So, what type of line manager feedback really works?
Feedback is more than simply a set of steps. Every individual will require a different approach, depending on the relationship between the parties and the situational context. If you’re a line manager giving feedback to improve performance that is below expectations, research suggests there are three principles that you need to follow for your feedback to be effective.
1. Be Positive
Entering the conversation with a positive intent is an essential element. Is your purpose to build the person up or tear them down? Positive outcomes usually involve raising awareness of the issue and seeking solutions to the issue.
Solutions may be getting the person to start doing something, stop doing something, or to change the way they do something. Sometimes the solution is related to dealing with systemic or process issues. Regardless of the solution, feedback can create a coaching opportunity. Think about how you can support the person to implement any ideas or solutions.
It is helpful to think about any positive aspects of their work or conduct in relation to the issue being discussed. Focusing on what the person can do (rather than what they can’t do) will give them more confidence when it comes to implementing solutions.
You also need to enter the conversation with an open mind. This is important if the feedback is going to be fair.
2. Be Fair
Procedural fairness requires the conversation to be two-way. You must give the person receiving the feedback an opportunity to respond (the ‘right of reply’) and you need to give due consideration to their response.
Possibly the most difficult aspect of fair treatment is being aware of your pre-conceived judgement of the person and being prepared to suspend that bias while listening to their response. People who don’t believe they got a ‘fair hearing’ will quickly disengage from the conversation.
Fairness also means being able to separate opinion from fact. People want to know that feedback is evidence-based. This requires the feedback to be accurate.
3. Be Accurate
Feedback can be based on many different sources of information: your observations, performance data and records, customer feedback/complaints, observations of others. Identifying the source of the information helps when it comes to validating its accuracy.
Your own observations are only what you saw or heard; you can’t be sure about why a person did what they did, and you may be missing some important contextual information. Third party and ‘hearsay’ information is even harder to validate. Spending time talking through the issue and the implications of perceptions (or misperceptions) will help find solutions and help to set clear expectations.
Timely feedback is also essential to improve its accuracy. Over time, details will fade and change in memory. Timely feedback is also positive and fair, as it enables the person to do something about it.
If you are open to the idea that feedback needs to be two-way, you need to allow the other person to give feedback to you. You might discover that your own actions or omissions have contributed to the issue. Be aware of your reactions and try not to immediately explain or justify your actions. Listen to the person, thank them for the feedback and consider whether to respond now or reflect on what they have said. Use these moments to role model how you would like the other person to receive feedback by being positive, fair and accountable.
iHR Australia’s Managing Everyday Performance is available to be delivered on-site and now publicly. The program provides managers and leaders with tools and techniques to prepare for and conduct effective performance conversations. Whether the performance issue is related to their capacity/capability or the conduct/behaviour, you will learn how to give feedback that is fair, accurate and achieves positive outcomes and improved performance.