Performance reviews: Giving good feedback and bad

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A new year means resolutions, goals and reflections. For most workers, the start of the new year also brings with it that potentially good, possibly awful, probably-awkward-either-way little chat that occurs between managers and their direct reports every first quarter. The annual performance review.

Performance reviews are pretty loaded conversations. If you’re an employee, they’re a summary of the efforts you’ve spent the last year of your life putting (or not putting) forth, your value to the company that employs you and typically, a good gauge as to whether or not you’re in line for a raise or promotion in the coming year. For managers, the conversations are an indicator of leadership ability and management effectiveness.

Yet often, the more stressful part of an annual review is not getting the feedback, it’s giving it. How do you tell an employee that she needs to get her rear in gear without hurting her feelings (or using the phrase “rear in gear”)? How do you express what a great manager your boss is without sounding like you’ve got a crush on him?

Below, some advice for both managers and employees on how to give effective feedback, both positive and negative.

Be specific

General statements about performance can seem empty. Comments like “You need to work harder,” are too vague, and will leave your colleague with a feeling of “where do I start” when it comes to changing their behavior. Your feedback will be the most constructive and well-received if you have concrete examples of the points you are making, whether positive or negative.

For example, instead of telling your boss “I’d like more responsibility,” try “I’m really interested in Project X that we’ve been working on all year, and I’d love to get more involved.”

Or, instead of praising an employee with “You did a great job with business development last year,” say “I see that you brought in 12 new clients last year, which went beyond your annual goal of bringing in eight. I appreciate your effort.”

Be direct

If you have some less-than-positive feedback to dish out, it’s best to just come out and say it. No need to lead up to it with a list of things the employee has done well or to sandwich the criticism between two compliments; doing so can seem passive-aggressive or insincere.

Additionally, by giving someone both positive and negative comments in the same breath, you run the risk confusing the person. He or she might focus more on the positive stuff and shrug off the negative feedback as an “Oh well, at least I’m doing great in the rest of my job,” when that may not be the case.

In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.

Be diplomatic

While it’s important to be direct when giving feedback, it’s equally important to be diplomatic in how you deliver it. Try not to come across like you’re preaching from a pedestal about your colleague’s faults  (i.e. “You don’t seem as enthusiastic about your work this year, and I think you really need to step up your effort because it’s bringing down the team”). The person may tune out or get defensive.

Instead, come to the conversation from a point of wanting to rectify, not just identify, the problem. Say something like “I noticed that you struggled to meet your sales goals last year. How can we make those goals more attainable going forward?”

In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say, but you don’t have to say it mean.

For more on performance reviews, see:

What everyone should know about performance reviews

Performance reviews: Do they belong in today’s workplace?

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