How to Give Performance Feedback to Staff

One of the jobs of a manager is to cultivate staff, and help them improve and grow. To achieve that, good managers provide frequent feedback to individual staff members on performance. I am frequently asked how often to give feedback and how to give it.

To sales managers and chiefs in particular, I recommend informal review meetings monthly for the purpose of individual performance evaluation and feedback. I am often met with surprise at this recommendation. Most companies already have formal individual performance review systems mandated by Human Resources that may take place once or twice per year.

Do not confuse the informal meetings between manager and staff member with the formal reviews mandated by HR. The purpose of the informal meetings is different. Informal meetings are to help the staff members improve performance to the satisfaction of the manager. The informal meetings are private and between manager and staff member only.

Having frequent informal meetings to review a staff member’s performance has a number of advantages. First, it provides feedback faster and earlier to help staff members improve performance or correct a performance deficit quickly. That helps the manager reap the benefit of improvement faster and earlier and increase the rate of performance improvement of the team. In addition, it gives the opportunity to staff members to make improvements prior to formal performance reviews mandated by HR. When the HR performance review time comes, it is easier for both the manager and staff member. There will be no negative surprises. Finally, it provides a monthly opportunity for the staff members to seek advice and guidance from the manager in a safe setting.

Review Observable Behaviors not Personality Traits

In providing feedback to staff members, it is critical to focus on observable behaviors, not on personality traits. For example, don’t tell a staff member, “You are not proactive enough. Why don’t you be more proactive?”

How is the staff member to take this? What does “not proactive enough” really mean? What is the staff member to change in order to improve?

Trait-based feedback is cryptic, mysterious and gives a staff member little indication of what to do. It also has the risk of being viewed as unfair. For example, the staff member may think, “What is my boss talking about?! I am very proactive in my work!”

Instead, think of what behavior you have observed that made you think the staff member isn’t proactive enough. Give feedback on specific behaviors you have observed in specific situations and times.

For example, “When we visited the customer together last Thursday, you asked no questions about the customer’s business or the new project they are considering. You only proposed products in our catalog. In sales meetings, you should be asking questions proactively to understand the customer’s business needs before proposing products. We have reviewed this before. What is going on? Is there something that is keeping you from doing this?”

Feedback like above is far more effective. It has been couched in the context of observed behavior. It is clear to the staff member what to change to improve. The manager and the staff member can now have a rational conversation about how to make the improvement, and how the manager might lend support

Setting Standards and Expectations

As a manager, it is important to give some thought to the types of behaviors and observable phenomena that indicate good performance. Rather than selecting something like “Good communication,” which could mean just about anything, try to think of what good communication looks like. How do you expect staff to behave? What kinds of things should they be doing? What types of results do you expect see?

I recommend choosing the top key capabilities that drive good performance. This may require some thought on your part. Write down the observable behavior and phenomena you would expect to see. Once, you have written these down, you now have a standard that you can use to evaluate staff. You can also share this standard with staff in advance so they know exactly what is expected in terms of behavior and results, and how they will be evaluated. This will help them improve.

Implementing a System of Informal Feedback

So, what can you do to implement this system?

  1. Start by creating your standard. Chose the key capabilities that drive individual performance. Be specific about what success looks like in terms of observable behavior, phenomena and results. Keep it simple, start with 6-12 capabilities.
  2. Share the standard with staff. They can’t improve if the standard is not clear.
  3. Create a simple spreadsheet for each staff member. Evaluate them for each capability. Give a grade of say between 1 and 5, 5 being the best. Don’t worry about quantitative measures so much. Use your own judgement. Only, be sure that can explain your evaluation to the staff member in terms of observed behavior and the standard.
  4. Set up monthly informal review meetings with each staff member. Share your evaluation. Explain your evaluation and talk about ways to improve. Hold staff members accountable for improvement by the next informal meeting. Keep these meetings short, 20-45 minutes.
  5. Take time to write down observations of staff behavior periodically during the week. Recording observed behavior will help prepare for the reviews. Don’t rely just on your memory.

Try these simple techniques. If you do this well, you will find that your team will begin improve at a much faster rate.