Three Small Steps to Killer Feedback

I cried. Tears ran down my cheeks as my boss criticized me for my numerous speeches and publications; he said they were taking time away from the job. When I explained that I prepared them on nights and weekends, i. e., “my time,” he roared, “That’s my time!”

Putting aside the craziness of this interaction, this personal Worst Feedback Ever experience explains why employees and leaders fear feedback. My experience is far from unique: a C-level female executive told me her CEO confided that he was reluctant to give feedback to an under-performing woman executive because he was afraid she would cry. But of course, not giving feedback makes it far less likely that poor performance will improve.

Negative reactions, or even just anticipation of them—tears, anger, resentment, demotivation—are big reasons why leaders avoid delivering performance feedback.

But taking three small, regular steps with performance feedback can turn this burdensome task into a tremendous learning and motivational tool to promote top performance and retain top performers.

Give More Performance Feedback

To make good on your role of inspiring the best performance from others, use the critical tool of performance feedback. The evidence on performance feedback is that more is more: more frequent, more behavioral, more specific, more immediate feedback is best.

Three things often stop leaders from using feedback: time, training, and timidity. Leaders think that feedback will take a long time, time they don’t have. They also assume it will take extensive training, which takes more time they don’t have. And they fear the negative reactions described above.

None of these reasons is an impediment. Five minutes of feedback per person a week in the form of a brief conversation, an email, voicemail or text, can provide detailed, specific and frequent feedback. Calendaring an hour a week to deliver feedback to all direct reports routinizes this critical activity and the specific, immediate feedback that elicits the best results.

This does not require special training. Making it a regular part of the work week instead of something associated with annual evaluations and salary discussions, elicits less negativity and anxiety as well as better performance sooner. It also promotes ongoing discussion that delivers thoughtful and immediate information on how an employee is doing and how they can do better now.

Follow Up on Feedback

Delivering weekly feedback provides the greatest impact. However, without a simple plan to translate the feedback into one or two small, measureable steps from the employee and a leader’s follow up on this commitment, feedback is likely to have limited benefit.

When delivering upward feedback to poor performers in a prestigious law firm, one partner greeted my review of his major performance problems with a dismissive, “Oh, I’ve heard all these things before,” which of course begged the question: Why haven’t you fixed them?

Another brilliant partner who had caused tremendous turnover and morale problems was actually interested to hear what I thought of his style, and sought advice on how to handle different challenges with associates, staff and even clients.

But what are the chances that any meaningful change will occur for either of them, absent follow up from a leader or person in authority who can help them identify a small measureable step or two to take to address the most urgent problem, and to help them address the inevitable problems that occur when any of us makes changes.

High work demands make it essential to identify corrective steps and follow up times, so that good intentions translate to behaviors. Here, too, small steps and follow up that are not time-consuming make this strategy sustainable for employees and leaders alike.

Focus on Relationships

Delivering effective performance feedback involves focusing on the relationship, not just the task. Consider the employee’s style and past reactions to help frame the feedback so that an employee can better absorb and use the information.

A simple “sandwich” technique may improve the response. Most people respond best to sensitively delivered feedback. So when you have feedback on things that need to improve, sandwich the critical feedback between two positive statements. And remember not to pour it on—limit the critical feedback to one or two small and specific things, so the employee is not overwhelmed. All of us make changes in small steps; trying to do too much at a time is a recipe for failure.

Point out something the employee did well in this assignment, case, deal or project, and let him or her know what it was. Praise things you genuinely believe they do well, even if they are small things. Follow this with a specific thing that could be done better and close with another thing they did/do well.

Here’s an example: “Lauren, you write exceptionally clear, succinct briefs. However, the argument you made here is missing an organizing idea and does not have the level of documentation you usually provide. If you address those two issues, we can send it straight to the client. This is another of your outstanding briefs. You are among the best writers I’ve worked with in the past 15 years.”

This focus on the relationship is not a manipulation or a gimmick. Emotional intelligence, broadly defined as interpersonal skills, predicts success far more than intelligence or technical expertise. Leadership success is almost entirely due to emotional intelligence. Use the sandwich technique to focus on the process of delivering feedback. Feedback is a great way to increase your sensitivity and attention to your impact and build your relationship, while simultaneously educating employees about how to perform better.

These three simple techniques can help you master the art of killer feedback. Giving more feedback by calendaring in weekly, detailed but succinct feedback; defining a specific improvement step from the feedback and following up at an agreed upon time; and sandwiching critical feedback between two pieces of positive feedback, help make the most of feedback to elevate performance and build your relationships with employees. Killer feedback is within your reach!

About the Author

Rachelle J. Canter is the principal of RJC Associates, which provides leadership, career, organization, and team development services to executives, attorneys and other professionals. She can be reached at

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