Evaluating the quality of your employees’ work is one of the canons of management. The ability to deliver advice and coaching directly related to your appraisal of their contribution to your organization is a skill so tied to the overall fate of a company that it demands mastery. Discussions centered on the caliber of someone’s work are essential agenda items for one-on-ones and team meetings alike. The mentorship gained through effective feedback enables allows you to guide each person you manage to grow, prosper, and exceed their goals.
However, when it comes to a topic as personal as someone’s job performance, pitfalls abound for even the best communicators- when does praise become overindulgence or breed complacency, and where is criticism harsh enough to demoralize or burn-out an employee? How do you make even the toughest feedback a meaningful interaction that will strengthen workplace relationships and actually stick, rather than an alienating exercise in futility?
Our experts had a lot to say when it comes to when, where, and with what frequency to deliver positive and negative feedback. Read on to learn their tested methods for putting yourself and your staff into the right frame of mind to give and receive feedback that is truly effective.
What’s the secret to giving effective positive feedback? Conversely, what’s the secret to giving effective negative feedback?
“One of the important aspects of giving positive feedback is doing it on a regular basis, and in a visible way.”
When someone is doing really well or has positive indicators, I note that in a one-on-one, but also in a team setting, whether on the team Slack channel, a team meeting, or just in the morning, as everyone’s coming in and chatting about the day before. I publicly acknowledge that this person handled something really well or effectively addressed an area for improvement.
As opposed to sharing positive feedback with the group, I try to keep the strongest negative feedback to a one-on-one setting.
“If it’s not something drastic and I just need to comment on how they could have handled a situation better, I think it’s fine to bare that in a team or collaborative setting. Sometimes the whole team can benefit from witnessing the discussion.”
But, if it’s a performance-related issue or something inappropriate happened, that definitely needs to be handled in a private conversation. It varies with the situation.
One of the phrases that I say to my team a lot is, “Don’t stop.” Look, you’re ahead. You’re in the bonus round. Keep going.
“If a team member has a great win, then I’ll say, ‘Great, you’re on a high. Go call those three people who’ve been avoiding your phone calls.’”
I want them to use that positive energy to keep driving toward their goals. I try to figure out what motivates them and how to get them even more jazzed, whether it’s money or praise in public. And I say, “Don’t stop.” I will reiterate that over and over. In a sales role, you’re not done when you close the deal. If you’re getting positive feedback that means you probably did something great or you mastered a skill set. Great. You’ve now hit quota three times in a row. Here’s what else you need to do before you get your promotion. Make sure they know what the next step is in the march toward whatever goals they have. Don’t stop. Get here earlier tomorrow.
“With negative feedback, or constructive feedback, team members need to know that it will be coming their way.”
I establish on day one of the working relationship that it’s part of my job to give them feedback. Once they know that negative feedback is received a little bit better. Build that relationship, that trust, with your team. They should know that you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t provide feedback. You also have to provide very, very specific examples of the behavior you’re trying to change. Walk through alternative choices that could have been made. This is where role-playing becomes important. For instance, you’re having a conversation with a prospect and they ask about pricing or discounts, and you whiff on how to respond to that. There are very easy ways to say, “Okay, that was not a great response. Let’s walk through it. Let’s role-play it and hash out a better outcome.” That’s sales coaching.
Positive feedback is easier because team members are always more receptive to it. Often it’s tied to a high expectation.
“I make sure that I’m not stingy with my praise, but that I only give it when it’s sincere and warranted. When they hear praise from me, they know it means something.”
For example, I have one rep who’s been working really hard, putting in extra hours, shadowing this other, more senior rep. He’s working hard on his own process and technique, and he’s having an amazing month. My expectations were always very high, and it meant something when I said to him today, “Fantastic job. I see the work that you’re doing has really paid off.” I try to tie my praise to something that he or she has done that’s very tangible. It’s not just, “Hey, great job.” It’s, “I saw the work that you did improving your demo skills, and I see now that your conversion rate has really gone up. Great job.” I make it very concrete, so it’s a motivator to do more of that and to continue to work hard.
“It’s helpful if there’s some context already built around the issue before any negative feedback is given.”
Anyone who’s worked with me for any length of time knows that if anybody is in their corner, it’s me. So when I give negative feedback, it is in the spirit of, “I am on your side, 100%, but this particular thing isn’t working.” I had a situation where I fired one of my top performers. I loved this guy, but there were some things that he was doing that were unethical, and I don’t tolerate that at all. When I let him go, he knew. I even said to him, “You don’t have a bigger fan in this company than me, and because I am such a big fan of yours, I need to let you go.” I explained to him I cared about him and will always work to help him, but that he needed this lesson at this point in his career. He wasn’t happy about it, but I think he also knew that authentically, I’m in his corner and I care about him.
Mike Gamson of Linkedin says something to the effect of ‘Criticize privately and praise publicly.’
“When you share praise with everyone, it feels great for the recipient, but it also provides behavior modeling for the rest of the team.”
You’ll find that they do pick up on it. Let them lead team meetings. Show them that they’ve earned the right to lead the team in some way, shape, or form. Don’t just dole that out to anybody, though. Try to continually find ways to loosen the reins on high performers. Demonstrating trust in them and giving them more autonomy is a quiet way to pass on praise. Find opportunities for rewards, including outside team functions that have nothing to do with work. I’ve found that people really like those, especially millennials. They want to get a little bit of time off and go hang out with their coworkers in a non-work setting. I try to praise people by saying, “Hey take Friday afternoon off. You guys did an incredible job hitting this number.”
The traditional thinking on negative feedback is tell them something nice and fluffy, and then hit them with the hard news. I don’t buy into that. Everyone in Silicon Valley has now either heard about or tried to adopt the concept of radical candor. There’s a lot of merit to that approach.
“I don’t like to beat around the bush. It’s my general preference to be very direct, and I ask for direct feedback in return.”
But I do so in a way that reinforces the idea that I’m out for their best interests. If someone lost a deal, I’d first let them know that I’m okay in general with them losing deals and I’m giving feedback so they can take it and apply it to their next opportunity. That way, people feel more comfortable sharing what happened. Then, I’d just be very direct and detailed on the feedback. For example, “I heard you say this on this particular call. The metrics are telling me this. All of this builds up a story that suggests that you need to improve on x.”
Also, afford them the opportunity to share their perspective on it. Feedback is not just about dictating what you think needs to be improved, but about being open to their perspective. People are often self-aware enough that they might make some of the same points you intended to with your feedback. Lastly, make it actionable. What specific actions are you going to take to fix this thing? How are you going to measure your progress? Where do you need my help? Be very specific and make it clear the onus is not exclusively on them to improve, that you want to help them figure out how.
I think positive feedback is easy. Make sure it’s actually genuine, give an example of good work, and avoid inexact language or hyperbole. You’ll hear people say, you’ve improved a ton. What does that mean? You should give specifics and say you’ve really shown improvement by not doing this or by doing more of that.
“I think for feedback in general, and especially for negative feedback, you have to know who you’re giving feedback to. That means knowing if something more subtle will be enough, or if you need to be more adamant about the feedback or change that you’re trying to affect.”
You still need to give the feedback your way. If you want to do it in a compliment sandwich, I think that’s fine, but the core is you need to understand how they’re going to react to the tone you use and be able to structure that tone effectively for them. So start off gentle for new hires and ease into the feedback, so you just gauge their reaction. If nothing changes, or you’re not really seeing an improvement or a recognition that they need to improve, then you say it again, but a bit more directly. As a manager, you should know that it may take a couple times, so if you don’t see an immediate result, don’t just jump into the conclusion that they’re ignoring you. Don’t try to be very adamant in the beginning.
Learn more from our experts, and see full profiles, here:
Katie Cartwright, Head of Fulfilment Sales at Easypost
Annelies Husmann, Director of Sales at Mode Analytics
Bridget Gleason, VP of Worldwide Sales at Logz.io
Mike Haylon, VP of Sales at Care Message
Alexis Zhu, Director of Revenue at Affirm
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