Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett, left, accepts congratulations from Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil after Oakland’s Super Bowl XV win in New Orleans in 1981. Photo: Pete Leabo, AP
Giving feedback is part of managing talent and something that, if done well, can change the trajectory of a person’s entire career path. Employees depend on constructive feedback to be able to improve on their performance and make sense of the challenges they face in their roles. Although giving managerial feedback can be a critical tool for increased effectiveness and growth, it’s often mishandled and institutionalized to the point that it only happens in a “performance review” setting with the employee’s stomach in knots. This is not the ideal set up for any sort of real progress to take place.
To make better strides in terms of workforce performance, managers and leaders can reframe the way they see this part of their job from just giving feedback to coaching employees along. If pointing out employees’ areas of strength and weakness, success and failure, is part of an underlying foundation in a “coaching” approach, the skill of providing feedback can become more of a finessed process centered on developing motivated, top performers. Who doesn’t want that?! Providing feedback through the coaching lens elevates the entire critiquing process. It gives managers and leaders of teams a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Sharing constructive feedback no longer involves a mutually dreaded annual or quarterly meeting between employee and supervisor, but is part of an ongoing, invested, relationship that includes openness and collective goals for growth.
How can we move beyond just giving feedback and usher in the “coach approach”?
Famed NFL coach Dick Vermeil said, “A great coach tells you what you never wanted to hear so that you can become the person you never thought you could be.”
Speak your employee’s language.
First and foremost, a coach knows how to communicate feedback in a way that is easily digested and internalized by the employee. That takes understanding yourself deeply. You need to understand your own communication style and how that can be perceived by others with differing styles. You could have the best intentions when sharing your feedback, but if the listener hears harsh criticism and contempt, you may become the threat to be avoided, losing focus on the actions that need correcting. Making adjustments to your communication style for the sake of being truly heard can do wonders for your team. If you can learn to speak your employees’ language rather than your own, they’ll be more likely to share in your vision for improvement.
Empathy plays an important role in encouraging change. Through empathy you’re not making excuses for the employee, but you are humanizing the feedback interaction, especially when it’s of a corrective nature. Empathize with the situation, not corrective behavior, which sounds like, “It’s not easy to hear news of an unsatisfactory customer report. I don’t feel good when I find out that I’ve let someone down.” This one empathetic statement creates a level of trust to effectively address the problem together and to get honest information from the employee.
Coach Dick Vermeil. Photo Credit: AP 1976
Make it part of your culture.
Put feedback and open communication front and center of your organizational culture. Saving up your suggestions for improvement and your identification of problems for an annual performance review makes waste of the entire year! The most effective feedback is provided regularly and as close to the time of misstep as possible. If the misstep involves a high level of emotion, then, of course, it makes sense to wait until everyone involved has had a chance to calm down. But still, don’t table it for an end-of-year discussion. Employees can learn and adapt more effectively when corrective feedback can be applied to their next immediate actions or the next similar scenario. Why wait until the problematic behavior has crystalized?
You can shape a positive cultural response to feedback by modeling your own positive perception, asking for feedback regularly, and receiving feedback with respect and openness. You can show your employees that all feedback is positive because positive things come of it. Positive change, forward momentum, personal growth, innovation, or whatever your company stands for… is propelled forward by honest communication and feedback.
Shift your mindset.
Perhaps the biggest shift is the shift in mindset. A coach is developing an employee from the inside out. While feedback on task-related behaviors is essential, the coach takes measures to encourage the employee’s self-reflection. A coach asks questions rather than making statements about his or her assessment of the issues. Rather than stating your interpretation right away, only bring to light exact facts. Then, gather the employee’s thoughts and ask them to make their own assessments.
It sounds like this, “The project implementation dates for the client were missed in four areas. What’s your take on this?”
When you get your employee’s response, resist the urge to assess again, and ask yet another question. “And what would have to happen differently for this to have been avoided?”
Ask as many questions as you can so the employee can come to the conclusion on his or her own. This gives the employee control over their outcomes, empowers them to make different choices, and sears in their mind the new approach.
As a manager or leader, you simply must evaluate performance, share suggestions for improvement, and discuss future goals. Deliver feedback as an invested coach, with care and frequency, so that employees hear and act upon your insights. When done in the right way, and with the right intentions, feedback can elevate performance in ways you never imagined.