Telling people what we think about their performance doesn’t help them improve.

Think about the last time you received constructive criticism. Did it actually prompt you to change your behavior? Did you agree with the person providing the feedback? Or did it provoke annoyance instead of prompting action?

When we highlight the shortcomings of others, they tend to react defensively. Negative feedback is often received as a threat, which can lead to depression and anxiety. We set out to inspire improvement. Instead, our peers begin to avoid us, gravitating toward peers that provide a judgment-free safety net.

Why doesn’t it work?

We aren’t as good as we think we are at giving others feedback on their performance. The idiosyncratic rater effect explains that “humans are unreliable raters of other humans.” Data shows that this presents a large bias. According to Harvard Business Review, more than half of your assessment of someone else is a projection of your own characteristics. So, it’s almost impossible for leaders or peers to accurately rate another person’s weaknesses or skills.

When someone says, “if I were you, I would do this,” or “we do it like this,” what they are really saying is that other person should be more like them. The truth is, we are all different. What works for one person may not work for another. The skills one person uses to communicate effectively can be completely different from how another would approach the same situation.

For someone to grow and improve, they need to have a positive view of themselves. If we set out with the intention to provide feedback for improvement, but end up deflating that person’s sense of self, we will likely not get the results we were seeking.

There is a better way

Providing better feedback involves spending more time listening than talking. We learn more when we answer probing questions about our performance than we do when we are listening to a leader tell us how to perform.

How to Use Probing Questions for Improvement:

  1. Start with what’s working. Emphasizing positive behaviors helps employees grow and learn why certain actions lead to positive outcomes.
    • Start with: “Tell me three things you are doing right now that make you feel good about your performance.”
    • Then, probe. Focus on one of the three things and ask why is it working.
  2. Move on to opportunities for improvement. Ask employees to describe one thing they are struggling with and why.
    • Start with: “Have you experienced any barriers to achieving results recently? How did you work through that?”
    • Then, probe. “Can you think of a time you’ve experienced a similar barrier? What did you do?”
    • Offer suggestions by explaining what has worked for you in a similar situation. Avoid the temptation to tell the person what you think they should do.
  3. Close by asking “What actions could you take to grow and develop your skills? How can I help you?”

Adapting to this process doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t address poor performance or toxic behavior. If the employee has an attitude problem, have a conversation about their unwillingness to follow procedures, policies, standards, or core values. It’s important to be specific about the behavior, attitude, or missed step. Try not to generalize or attack the person.

Relationships are key to effective feedback

We have found that performance is difficult to improve when leaders don’t have effective working relationships with employees. A Studer Group study on employee engagement and work/life blend revealed five things that employees want:

  • Feel valued and appreciated
  • Know what to do to improve
  • Provide input about their work
  • Have the resources needed to do a good job
  • Engage in processes that help with workplace productivity.

These critical needs can be accomplished by strengthening relationships with employees and building an emotional bank account with them.

A performance conversation will be more productive if you have a positive relationship with the employee. Start by making regular connections with employees from the time that they join the team.

Performance conversations are best when they occur more often and in the moment. Our goal is to make performance conversations a habit of practice – to catch people performing well and knowing when help is needed.” – Janet Pilcher

The Accelerate Your Performance podcast explores feedback that inspires in episode 22: Connecting with Solid Performers.

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