Part 2 in our Great Performance Series: Deliver Great, Actionable Feedback (and feeling good about it)

In Part 1 we talked about the three primary reasons that people don’t perform as you’d hope or expect them to.

Today we will discuss how to have forthcoming conversations with people about their performance. I thought this might be a good time as many organizations are in their performance calibration and evaluation time. And these evaluation conversations can be consequential to the team member and anxiety-inducing for the boss. As a result, sometimes we don’t show up in this process as powerfully as we can.

One very core belief of mine is that in any relationship, whether professional or personal, providing thoughtful input on expectations and how you perceive things are going is a gift. As noted in the last post, a foundational responsibility of the leader is to be clear about what success looks like and why it’s important. It only follows that providing helpful input along the way, for encouragement and/or for course correction, is also a responsibility of the leader. Thoughtful, supportive feedback is actually a gift.

I’d like to begin with four principles of feedback, four ways of thinking about feedback that might not be common or popular in our ‘always gotta deliver’ culture.

So here are some basic principles of feedback which might be helpful in thinking about how you approach delivering feedback which is supportive, helpful and actionable, for a peer or a team member or even a boss.

1. Principle One: Feedback doesn’t equate to negative or corrective input. Feedback can be a loaded term- many of us cringe when we hear the term because, historically, feedback meant criticism. And, many of us are uncomfortable with giving people bad news or criticizing people. In fact, feedback (or even feed forward) should actually lean much more toward positive reinforcement and ‘catching someone doing something right’ than corrective input- try for a ratio of at least 3:1 positive input to negative. Telling people, ‘The report you provided was exactly what we need- I want to see more of that’ goes a long way toward helping people know what’s expected, what good looks like, and helps them repeat that performance in the future. It also will send the message, which is in most cases very true, that the team member does most things well.

2. Principle Two: When giving feedback, it’s essential you meet person’s core needs for certainty and importance. People have very basic needs to have certainty and surety and predictability in their lives plus a deep need to feel valued. Anything you can do to let people know why you’re giving this feedback can help. It’s natural for all of us to assume the worst (that’s how our brains help keep us safe) so being clear about the implications of your input will help your team member keep the input in context. Further, knowing your manager cares about you as a human being, and not just a cog or resource, can go a long way toward the ability to receive the information from a good place. For example: ‘I’m sharing this because you’re important to this team, you’re doing a lot of great things and I think you can contribute at an even greater level.’

3. Principle Three: The best feedback is genuine and specific– this might seem obvious but helpful, actionable input points toward specific behaviors, not generalities. For instance, compare the value of the following:

You did a great job in that meeting. I thought you really demonstrated executive presence.

I really appreciated how you showed up in that meeting. Your remarks were clear and on point, you backed up your input with data, and you spoke with confidence. I think that will help management take our proposal seriously.

Which of the above do you think is most useful and actionable for the team member? Which one provides examples of the behavior you’d the person to repeat in the future?

4. Principle Four: We are great raters of our own experience and pretty terrible raters of others’ performance. That is, that we do a pretty good job of giving instruction (step one, step two…). And we are good at describing our own experience. What we’re not good at is transferring a clear, single version of ‘universal, analyzable, and describable’ high performance.’ In this great article from strengths scientist Marcus Buckingham on the ‘fallacy of feedback’, Buckingham says, ‘Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning. ‘

Given these principles, how do we approach feedback? Here’re some ideas which I hope are straightforward and actionable for you. This provides some concrete suggestions for providing feedback, first in an everyday environment and then in a more formal, performance improvement scenario.

A straightforward but effective approach is Start / Stop / Continue: Give people a sense of what you’re seeing in their performance which is serving them and their work (i.e., what, in your belief, they should Continue doing). And give them ideas for what they could Start doing which serves their success. And let them know of any behavior which you sense is holding them back from success- what they can Stop doing, in order to meet their goals.

In addition, work to focus on behavior and your experience of it, not their personality or your interpretation. People can adjust their behavior but will find it very hard to change who they are. In practice this means using language such as, ‘When you told me you’re changing your approach on this project without talking to me first, I felt a bit left out and that I could have had something to offer. I’d ask that on future decisions like this, that I have a chance to weigh in. What do you think about that?’ Note this input includes 1) your lived experience as well as a 2) clear request and 3) a reason why.

By the way, I’m not a big fan of the ‘feedback sandwich’ which involves surrounding corrective input with two pieces of positive input. I’m not a fan because we tend to remember what comes first and last so it’s not effective as a communication structure. Plus, it just feels disingenuous- that you’re not prepared to just speak the truth.

Instead, if you want to balance both positive and negative feedback, a way to say it is, ‘I thought your report did a good job of delivering the data. However, I found myself hungry for more insight and what should my takeaways be; that is, what should I do with this data?’ You’re helping the person by acknowledging what you found helpful and also, your experience of what might be missing.

But what about those uncomfortable times when you have to address a specific performance issue? In those cases I suggest a more planful, structured approach to your communication.

You want to be intentional around both what you say and what impact you want to have with the person. That means doing some preparation: first, what is your specific ask or request. And second, how do you want the person to feel at the end of the conversation (i.e., I want the person to feel supported or challenged or awakened or something else). Your intention for the other person will guide your language, your tone, your level of exchange (how much back-and-forth you’re willing to accept).

The same principles apply, though: be genuine and specific and share your experience. Here are the steps in that process and you can find a more detailed version in this article.

Prior to the meeting, consider the following:

1. Your outcome: Become clear on what it is you want- is this a behavior change, is it just something you want the person to be aware of, is it a change in how you are treated. The more clear you can become on this the more likely you’ll be able to make the request in a way that can be understood.

2. What do you want for the other person? How do you want s/he to feel when the meeting is over? Do you want her to feel supported, confident, clearer, empowered… something else?

3. How do you want to show up; what part of your demeanor do you want to reflect (calm, confidence, clarity, kindness, support, openness…, etc.)?

In the meeting

4. State your purpose- what we are here and ask permission. ‘(use your words, not mine) Something like, ‘Thanks for getting together. I’d like to talk about how we are working together. Would that be OK with you?’ Asking permission is important because you want the person to feel some agency in this process. If the person isn’t open to speaking about this right now, simple ask to schedule a near-term time which would work better.

5. State your experience, IMPORTANT- this is what you have or are experiencing, no interpretation, no judgment. “I notice that when I’m getting ready to speak with our partners, you’ve asked me not to share too much. When that happens, I feel as if you don’t trust me or that I need to be micromanaged. I recognize that may not be the case but I’m just reporting how it lands with me.’

6. Ask for the other person’s experience of this. ‘I’m wondering if you see it the same way. Can you share what you think about this?’ Typically a discussion will ensue in which you share your perspectives on the situation. Practice active listening and being curious.

7. Make your request. ‘I find I work best when I am forthcoming and transparent. That generally gets me the best outcomes. If I commit to keeping you in the loop, would you agree to allowing me to make decisions about what to share in these situations?’ No need to defend your request. Keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. The only detail necessary is to make your request as clear and understandable as possible. Wait for a response.

8. After you’ve discussed, repeat the commitment the person had made (if she’s made one) or confirm the core of what you’ve heard, ask for confirmation, ‘Did I get that right?’

9. Confirm any agreements about timing and logistics. Thank the person for being willing to talk about this.

I trust this brought some new ideas in terms of how to provide feedback in a way that feels authentic to you and serves the person you’re working with. As humans, we tend to value harmony over results. And that can get in the way of delivering your truth. But I believe it’s a gift to share your experience in a way that helps the person grow.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts and your experience in helping people build greater performance. If you’d like to chat about your team or a performance issue, feel free to reach out:

Third and last in our series on great performance is an article on what’s important about team engagement and a simple way to measure and enhance engagement.

Thanks for reading and have a great day.

Andy Scantland is founder of Upside Leadership, a firm helping leaders show up effectively, confidently, and inspiringly through executive coaching and team development. You can reach Andy at