I once had a co-worker who was fond of saying, “Feedback is a gift. Sometimes it’s a gift you don’t want, but it’s always a gift.” Over the last several months I’ve heard many examples of poor, ineffective, or non-existent performance management processes. Let’s take a look at what good feedback looks like and understand why it’s truly a gift for everyone.

Why is feedback so important?

Just the other day I was talking to a client about the annual reviews he gave, and he said, “It’s really not much work for me. Most of my people do a good enough job, so we don’t make a big deal of it.” I hear different versions of this same story all the time, and it’s a significant missed opportunity for the manager, the employee, and the business.

To start, employees are one of the company’s biggest asset, if not the biggest asset. Even at a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, when some might think of their staff as replaceable, the truth is that employees hold important knowledge, embody the company’s culture, and, in many cases, are in direct contact with customers. Furthermore, your current employees are the root of any strategic staffing and succession planning, so they’re also critical to the company’s future. Effective feedback and performance management is the way to maximize this important asset. 

What’s the right way to give feedback?

There are many schools of thought on how to give feedback, and many tools available for managers. I tend to favor simpler tools, because the point of feedback is to have regular, purposeful, and effective conversations. In my experience, too much complexity can cause managers to get lost in the burdensomeness of the process, and thus the conversations never happen.

Some simple principles for providing effective feedback are as follows:

  • All employees need regular feedback. High performers need to have their contributions recognized in a meaningful way and to receive guidance on planning for future growth. Poor performers need clear communication about issues and to understand the required improvement.
  • Performance feedback should be based on pre-determined goals and objectives. The purpose of feedback is to assess the employee’s performance against those goals and objectives. Feedback should never seem arbitrary.
  • Performance feedback should be conducted according to regular cycles.  Annual review cycles are the most common, however there are situations where bi-annual, or even quarterly might be advisable.  In all cases giving effective feedback requires preparation. Employees should come to the feedback meeting prepared to discuss specific accomplishments, and manages should be prepared to evaluate specific accomplishments against expectations.
  • Significant performance issues should be addressed immediately. Managers should give immediate feedback if a significant performance issue is observed and not wait for the annual performance review. The regular feedback process then follows up and examines the employee’s development with respect to the desired behaviors.
  • Feedback should be balanced to be most effective. It should include both positive and constructive messages. High performers need guidance on how to further grow and progress, and low performers need examples of what they’re doing well.

How to get started

Here are five simple steps you can take to start an effective feedback and performance management process in your organization. You can always go further, but these basics will ensure that you’re headed in the right direction.

  1. Set specific goals. Set goals at the beginning of the performance cycle, and review any continuing goals.  The beginning of the year is often a good time to start this process.
  2. Be clear on performance measures. All mangers and employees need to align on how achievement will be measured.  Make sure to set clear examples of what good performance looks like.
  3. Have regular check-ins. There should be regular discussions with all employees about progress in meeting goals. Weekly or monthly discussions are generally a good cadence.
  4. Provide immediate feedback for significant issues. Provide immediate feedback if there is a significant performance issue, and give clear expectations for improvement.
  5. Use effective listening skills. Ensure that all parties are using effective listening skills throughout the process. Successful feedback and performance management are about effective communication.