Why do most people think feedback is criticism? Why do both managers and direct reports hate those year-end reviews? Here are ways to navigate this uncomfortable territory and develop more effective relationships.

Staff Writer

What are your first thoughts when it’s time for your yearly appraisal? I’ve asked this question to hundreds of business people and the most common theme is “I feel like I’m back in school waiting for my report card to take home to my parents.”

Just this piece of information can help you give the gift of helpful feedback, knowing you have sitting with you a grown and competent adult, as well as a nervous third grader.

Your task is to set the environment so the third grader can feel empowered and the adult in front of you can really hear what you’re saying. Know that no matter how breezy the conversation, how nonchalant the attitude, this time is always emotionally charged.

You can help reduce the tension by choosing the right time, place, and atmosphere.

See this time as a mutual learning experience. You are not there to judge. You are not there to pacify. You are there to help your staff members get to a new level of growth and development.

Here are the ways successful reviews have been handled.

First, focus your words on results. Don’t get caught up in small talk. This will trap you into leaving out much of what you need to say because you want to be a good friend. This false intimacy will trap you every time. In this situation, you need to find the balance point between being too friendly and being an office robot.

Second, let your colleague know you do not plan to do all the talking. To be effective, this needs to be a dialog. That means lots of asking and responding and looking beyond the obvious yes and no answers. If you talk most of the time it really does put the employee back in that third-grade mode when they were lectured to by teacher or parent. It creates a need for protection and defensiveness.

Third, discuss the areas that need improvement straight out. Think about it. When you hear someone start to tell you all the wonderful things you do, there’s almost always a hesitation waiting for the “But here’s where you fall down.” People often feel conned when they’re told superficial good stuff while they know you’re only doing that to soften the punch. The punch will hurt anyway.

Fourth, describe what needs to change in neutral terms. Please stay away from voting (others feel this way too) and gossip (I have heard this from other sources). Simple facts work. Don’t embellish and continue to underline the issue until the individual feels all but wiped out. This is done in short, simple sentences, not run on sentences and paragraphs. Thinking that saying the core issue over and over will help is just plain wrong. It shuts down the will to change.

Fifth, develop a plan for improvement. Here you may first offer some suggestions and then it’s vital to give time for creative suggestions from your employee. This is a time for open ended discussion and brain storming. Give room for unusual options and sit on your knee jerk need to say “no” too soon. The more your employee can come up with solutions, the more they will become part of the plan and not just a rote salute to do what you think is correct.

Sixth, offer your help. Extending your hand to be there and show your commitment is invaluable. This is the area that needs to be underlined, not the problem area. However, make it clear that while you will gain the funding for coaching or a program that will correct the issue you expect sleeves rolled up to do the hard work of making change happen and you can only be there to assist, not make the course correction.

Lastly, emphasize the positives and the potential. Now is the time to point out the successes and the belief in the person moving forward. Let them know that you have the strong belief they can move to higher ground and you are confident they can take the ball and run now that they have the information needed to make positive changes.

Keep the goals realistic and make sure that you check in with each other within a two-week period to keep the flow going. Don’t be an overbearing parent and micromanage. Give room for mistakes and re-calibration, and the odds will be in favor of success.

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