Donny Ebenstein on Giving Difficult Feedback During a Performance Review

Photo of Donny Ebenstein, author of I Hear YouThe following is a guest post by Donny Ebenstein, author of I Hear You: Repair Communication Breakdowns, Negotiate Successfully, and Build Consensus… in Three Simple Steps, presenting a scenario that illustrates three strategies to help managers communicate effectively during performance appraisals.

Milo, a manager at an investment bank, felt stuck.  He was about to conduct a year-end performance review for Pam, one of his direct reports.  Pam was a strong performer in many ways: clients loved her, and she generated significant revenue for the firm.

The problem was Pam’s interpersonal skills.  Pam’s team often grumbled about her harsh communication style, and Pam’s peers found her pushiness irritating.  These flaws were manageable in Pam’s current role, but a promotion would entail far more people management. Milo knew that Pam’s current skills weren’t up to the task.  At the same time, he dreaded Pam’s reaction to hearing she wasn’t getting promoted.  How should Milo manage this difficult performance review?

Here are three techniques Milo, and any manager, can use:

1. Give an overview of the feedback up front.  Your subordinate wants to know where this conversation is going.  If all is well, let them know that early on.  If there is a major problem, tell them that.  And if there is a major piece of information you need to share, such as the fact that the employee is not getting promoted, make sure you share that up front.  Burying the headline of the conversation wastes the time you have to discuss the feedback.  Get right to the heart of the matter, and then use the time to discuss whatever is most important.

Example: “Pam, we are going to be discussing your performance this year. You have many strengths, as well as some areas that need improvement.  As far as promotion goes, the feeling is that you are not quite ready for it.  I’m sure you are disappointed, and I’m hoping we can talk about it.” 

2. Share specific examples.  Whenever you deliver feedback, it is useful to offer concrete examples of what you mean.  This helps the recipient know what you are talking about, so that they can reflect and consider what you have said.  It sometimes takes a bit more effort to think of examples, but the investment is well worth it.  You may believe that the feedback is glaringly obvious, and the recipient must know exactly what you’re referring to when you say, “People perceive you as harsh.”  But remember that this is an area of weakness for your direct report, and that it is likely a blind spot where she doesn’t see her own behavior clearly.

Example: “One real problem is how you communicate with other staff members.  For example, in last week’s team meeting, you singled out one of the junior staff members for criticism in front of the whole team, and he was quite upset.”

3. Solicit the recipient’s input.  Asking for your employee’s thoughts about the feedback is essential.  It may be tempting to try to keep her from reacting, in order to avoid an argument about the content of the feedback.  But if you want an employee to truly reflect on your input and take it to heart, it helps to let her share her thinking.  A dialogue about your report’s performance is more likely to yield positive change than a monologue.

Example: “I’m sure this feedback is not easy to hear, and I’d like to get your reaction to it.  What do you think about what I am saying?” 

In the end, difficult performance reviews are just that – difficult.  No one likes getting bad news, and even if you deliver the message perfectly, it’s likely the person will have a negative reaction.  Keep in mind that the goal is not to have a fun, pleasant, stress-free conversation.  Rather, your goal is to share feedback that will help this person grow and improve.  That often requires the short-term pain of an honest feedback conversation to achieve the long-term gain of improved performance.  So keep a positive attitude and don’t have unrealistic expectations about how the other person may react.

And finally, remember the famous quote often attributed to Woody Allen: “80% of success is just showing up.”  Honest feedback, even delivered poorly, is much better than no feedback at all.  So just having the conversation is already an accomplishment.

Good luck!

Jacket image, I Hear You by Donny EbensteinDonny Ebenstein is an international expert in negotiation, communication, and conflict resolution. He is the founder and president of Ebenstein Consulting Inc., and works with professionals of all levels of seniority, from recent college graduates to partners, directors, and the top levels of management. Based in New York City, he has served clients in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia, with extensive experience in the Middle East.


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