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Developing a Habit of Delivering Frequent but Informal Feedback


Two women talking at a table in an office.

​Lindsay is an HR director at an aerospace manufacturing and design company with 200 employees, and she's concerned that her analytical, introverted management team may not be communicating enough with staff engineers and workers in support roles. Staff members are doing their work, no doubt, but they are lacking in spirit. There's low recognition in general, and employee morale seems to be down. Lindsay has the impression that workers are simply "going through the motions."

She realizes that communication and employee feedback are critical to develop agility and adaptability, and managers may be missing key opportunities to recognize and celebrate achievements. Even worse, they may be turning a blind eye to necessary critical feedback. 

First, let's start with a quick look at the generations in the workforce. Generation Y Millennials (workers between the ages of 25 and 45) and Generation Z Zoomers (the 25 and under crowd) are some of the most studied generational cohorts, and we know what they want. Career and professional development top the list in survey after survey, along with working for an ethical employer, doing meaningful work, and working for a management team that cares about them personally. 

When you sense that your organizational leadership team needs a bit more development in its communication abilities, it may be time to teach them how to provide praise and real-time feedback to meet this generational need.

Real-Time Feedback Starts with Recognition

As the saying goes, "Praise in public, censure in private." Making it safe for managers and front-line operational supervisors to celebrate successes is a healthy place to start your training. Put on a workshop or lunch-and-learn for your management team to discuss what this might sound like and how it can feel comfortable for them.

Be careful of the naysayers, however, who feel that you can't recognize and praise workers because it will go to their head and they'll want more money. When that's the case, simply shine the mirror back on them and ask, "So, if I called you out in front of the entire company and congratulated you on a particular accomplishment, asked you to tell us all about it and share your success story, the first thing you'd think about is that you want a 10 percent increase in pay?" Most managers will realize the error of their assumption when they put themselves on the receiving end of that message, and you can then move forward with your presentation.

"Recognition and appreciation for a job well done represent the intangible income that keeps employees engaged and self-motivated," said Lauren Griffiths, director of people operations at OneStream Software in Birmingham, Mich. "Give it freely and generously, as it costs you nothing and makes a world of difference to employees' sense of self-worth and pride." 

Sharing comments in public like, "Wow, how did you make that happen?" and "Do tell—we all want to hear more about your success," brings smiles and excitement, and that energy is contagious. Nothing uplifts people more than being publicly recognized for their achievements.

"Reward performance and behavior that clearly stand out, and remember that valiant efforts that may have not materialized may also be worthy of public shout-outs," Griffiths said.

Real-Time Critical Feedback Helps Staff Members Master Their Trade

It's not enough, however, to recognize only outstanding performance, achievement or effort. Millennials and Zoomers also want career and professional development, which translates into helping them hone their craft, master their area of responsibilities and learn how to course-correct when they make a mistake. Remember: It's not what you say but how you say it that counts. Try some of these tips for conversations intended to deliver critical, constructive and potentially confrontational feedback:

  • Share with me your approach to developing this proposal for the client. What considerations went into this initially and as you developed the final recommendation?
  • I've had a look at your recommendation to put in front of the client, and I have some additional thoughts I'd like to share that may shed some light on a revision to our initial approach. OK if we sit down and discuss this together?
  • I reviewed the final project submission and recommendation that you emailed me. There may be a few areas where I can help add some meat to the bones based on dealing with this particular customer in the past. Can we walk through this together?
  • I heard from the client that your interaction with her didn't go as planned or as expected. She was a bit emotional and upset at the time she spoke with me, but I realize there are two sides to every story. I'd like to hear your assessment of the meeting and how it progressed. Then we can discuss how to potentially turn this around and do some damage control.
  • I read your response to your co-worker on the group email chain. Let's sit down and discuss that for a bit. Some things are better handled in private, and a "group shout-out" in an email string that calls attention to someone's error could become cause for frustration and resentment. Let's talk about that and consider what your next best steps might be.

How you approach an employee who may have mishandled a project recommendation, failed to gain buy-in from other teams while formulating a proposal, or inadvertently "publicly shamed" a co-worker in an email thread becomes an important part of your reputation and leadership brand. 
"It's possible and even admirable to be a kind leader who simultaneously has high expectations," said Lisa Latronico, chief people officer with Skender Construction in Chicago. "In other words, you can soothe your words with kindness and create shared solutions with your staff members without making anyone feel judged or diminished, while [also] establishing expectations for high levels of achievement. Feedback is a gift. Respectful disagreement and constructive dialogue are key components to employee development."

Spicing Up Leadership Communication Without Waiting for the Annual Review

Certain companies in the high-tech and professional services industries are known for having jettisoned their annual performance reviews, reasoning that they mostly focus on past performance, provide outdated information, and generally leave employees feeling negatively about themselves or the company. Instead, they have moved to a "real-time feedback model," typically after a large project is completed, along with quarterly development meetings that provide an opportunity to review project results over the previous 90 days and—even more importantly—focus on goal setting and professional development over the upcoming quarter. 

Yet, other organizations have attempted to move away from annual reviews using the same logic, only to find employees asking to reinstitute annual appraisals a few years later so that they know where they stand and how the company feels about them. Why? Because some managers mistakenly wait for that annual review window to provide feedback—positive or negative—and in today's rapidly changing business environment, once-a-year feedback simply isn't enough.

Feedback can be challenging. Assessing others' historical performance and helping them set future goals is not something that comes naturally to all leaders. But quarterly—rather than annual—discussions can make for a healthy rhythm and cadence for feedback and feedforward opportunities. Invite employees to set the time on their managers' calendars and create the agenda for the meeting, including performance over the previous quarter, goal attainment and the need to pivot, and career and professional development options. With quarterly feedback firmly in place, you can then decide whether a performance appraisal "annual report" or "yearly scorecard" is necessary.
"Setting aside 30 minutes or one hour quarterly for each of your direct reports to meet with you and share how they're progressing toward their goals and professional development, what they need, or what's changed is meaningful beyond words," Latronico said. "Those types of discussions don't happen naturally on the shop floor or in the office. They only happen when managers make the time and space for them."

Whether your company issues annual performance reviews or not, these quarterly windows of opportunity to provide feedback on career development and future goals are the sweet spot in terms of building stronger ties with staff members and spiking employee engagement and retention. Combined with healthy recognition and opportunities for feedback and feedforward loops, your front-line operational leadership team will make long strides in becoming strong internal coaches who develop mastery in the areas of talent management and development.
In Lindsay's case, her management workshops made it safe for front-line operational leaders to recognize their employees publicly and to provide real-time, critical feedback without leaving anyone feeling judged or reprimanded. It remains a work in progress, but it's a healthy start to improving culture and re-engaging teams' hearts and minds.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, a certified executive coach and the author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom)His other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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