The Power of Development Feedback

Over the years, I have moved from being appraised as a team member to also being an appraiser of a team. As I have shifted in my primary role, it has been a true revelation to experience the power of development feedback. Most of us might not realise the massive positive impact it can create or the deep damage it can do, until one is sitting on the other side of the table with a part skeptical, part hopeful team member, waiting to see if we can help build their career.

Most supervisors go one of three ways. They conveniently skip addressing the tough parts of the performance feedback, or make brief and cryptic statements that turn matters worse, or provide overly objective and harsh development feedback.

Being a talent development professional, as well as a team lead, I find this worth focusing on and building strategies around. While the supervisor might feel relieved in the short-term, they miss two opportunities in the long-term; one, to have grown their team, and two, to have stretched themselves.

Data is the lifeblood of robust performance feedback. A lopsided report or incomplete data might skew the perception of a supervisor about their team member’s performance.

The following six strategies and suggestions to overcome challenges of providing development feedback have been gathered through my experience of facilitating several skill development programmes for supervisors, as well as understanding my own mistakes and observing skilled professionals around me that I learn from. Using these can ensure that we remain candid and authentic with our teams and also build a strong, trusting bond with them.

1. Get your data, and get it right

For example, it is not very helpful if a report tells me my team member got less than the minimum feedback score while delivering a specific programme, but doesn’t tell me other important data points such as how often they delivered this programme before the current instance? What was the level of the audience and complexity of the programme v/s another they get better feedback on? What was the mode of delivery? These are just a few data points that can help put information in perspective.

It is exciting when you realise that a well-crafted report can speak very clearly. At the same time, over dependence on hard data can be limiting. As a manager, I capture a considerable amount of soft data as well. An example of soft data is observing my team in a meeting for their contribution to the agenda, their response to their suggestion being rejected, their ability to persist and persuade others and willingness to respectfully debate an issue. Soft data is valuable input while deciding opportunities that suit each team member. I advocate not just documenting soft data, but also feeding it back to the team at appropriate moments. This lifts some of the pressure, to say it all at once, during the performance review process and makes it easier for the employee to accept it as well.

2. Be great at joining the dots

This is about looking at data and discovering meaningful connections – both within the hard data as well as how it corresponds with the soft, observation-based data. Not honing the ability to join the dots results in half-baked and dangerous conclusions about what happened and why.

This could be due to reasons such as lack of practice, not knowing the big picture, impatience with details, or simply lack of preparation before the feedback session. The implications of not seeing the data as a cohesive picture are far reaching and damaging for one’s credibility and the team’s future. Without this correlation, it is hard to say if the employee performed under par due to a systemic issue, a lapse in their work capabilities and efforts, a one-time accident, lack of guidance on our part, or a combination of these issues.

Case in point: We recently automated our feedback process, and the facilitator scores got immediately impacted. Few participants understood the online system and most failed to fill online feedback. This was a big change from filling hardcopy feedback forms right after the session that got us much higher scores. If I focused only on lower feedbacks as an issue, not only will I reach the wrong conclusion, but also spend time fixing the wrong problem. Getting to the root of underperformance on a KRA (Key Result Area) will ensure we are fair to the employee and provide them avenues and ideas for improvement and growth.

3. Develop Deep Courage

At times, the only thing standing between us and tackling a tough performance issue is courage.

Going back to human nature, most of us would do anything to avoid conflict and unpleasantness, especially, in a delicate situation, such as a performance review. Well-meaning development feedback melts away in a mumbled, quick gloss over of the most crucial parts. In the short term, it appears so much better to put it off for another day and spare their feelings. We might not realise the damage we just did. The valuable feedback stays with us and fails to come across as a healthy dialogue, or worse still, a vague input provokes a war of words ending in mistrust and disappointment for both parties.

Having a conversation during a performance feedback session is a practised skill. We need to keep learning how to bring in sensitive, yet important, feedback into the conversation without taking anything away from their achievements.

By remaining courageous, we can clearly separate the appreciation from the development feedback. We can do this by avoiding awkward words like ‘however’, ‘but’, ‘though’, and ‘at the same time’, all of which diminish the value of achievements and spotlight what went wrong. Courage comes with acknowledging that it is a hard situation to be in and then firmly shifting the focus from our self to the team member.

As we walk into that meeting room, the key is to remember that we can influence the person to be their best by providing them authentic feedback they deserve to know.

4. Cultivate compassion and consideration

Even moderately good performers generally resent being sympathised with or being told off. Compassion is more about empathy than being nice. Both courage and compassion are needed to provide authentic feedback.

An ancient Chinese saying puts it aptly, ‘truth without compassion is cruelty’. Courage without consideration can drive us away from a conversation that could be life changing. We tend to err on the side of sympathy than compassion. For example, a supervisor might get influenced by a team member’s angst with the organisation, the team, or their personal situation. Even so, that does not eliminate the need to provide tough feedback if needed.

Being overly mindful of the employee getting offended also results in sympathising. It helps to remember that our team requires us to help them grow more than to protect them. Being compassionate allows the employee to feel respected and to know that they are in good hands. It enables connecting with the employee so they know we understand their unique situation. At the same time, we are ready to focus on what’s best for their career. This approach also sends out a very important message to the employee – that you don’t get swayed easily. This means you are more likely to be fair with the team and them, which in turn opens up avenues for a healthier conversation.

5. Be a coach and support

There is a fine line of difference between sharing honest feedback and getting too hardnosed about it. Data does encourage supervisors and managers to be objective, and rightly so.

Mixing data with our opinions confuses the feedback and prevents clarity. At the same time, reading out data is not inspiring and might even elicit resentment from a team member. No one likes to be read out feedback. Even while debriefing performance on KRAs that are driven by hard data, one can speak in a tone and use language that is collaborative and meant to coach and guide the employee.

One way of doing this is to ask what they think of their own performance on a certain KRA and would they want to add to your interpretation. Or, that you are interested in hearing why they graded themselves a certain way on a KRA (especially if their self-rating differs from yours considerably).

It makes sense to hear their side of the story. Being reasonable, in turn, generates greater trust. It is amazing how few team members ever push you to change a rating if you present your reasoning and data with clarity, compassion and intent, to see them grow and learn from that experience.

6. Aim for respect first

Who doesn’t want to be liked and accepted some more? Well, most of us do anyway. There is nothing wrong with the aspiration as long as it doesn’t take precedence over being respected.

Respect is often confused with fear, awe or intimidation inspired by an impatient and exacting manager. On the other extreme, one of the greatest trepidations of supervisors, about providing development feedback or asserting themselves, is that they will be disliked for it and accepted even less. Probably, some of this fear is reasonable and might even come true in the short run. However, authentic and compassionate managers almost always earn respect that leads to gradual acceptance and even fierce loyalty. These are much more attractive rewards than short-lived popularity of being someone who only provides positive feedback and smiles at mistakes.

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Good news for supervisors – the millennials we now lead are hungry for frequent and honest feedback. They also want to be respected and treated as equals, and not protected unnecessarily. Earning their respect is important if they are to work collaboratively, give their best and stick around in the organisation for longer. It might be a good strategy to aim for respect first, acceptance and liking are happy by products that are likely to follow.

These are a few key strategies that can enable paving the way for development feedback as a means to build a robust team environment and a more productive team.

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