Remember how when you were still in school, who you were was based on the grades you got? That is how the system sets up the definition of success. The better the grades someone has, the more successful he or she will be. Then when the future comes, you realize success is more than just numbers on a piece of paper.

No one likes to feel like just a number. Yet in business, that is how many feel. They are rated on metrics like sales, utilization, revenue, numbers that do not tell the whole story This is a dying model. The world is moving on and companies like Netflix already have better rules to play by.

There’s a good chance that you already know this. Now the question is: how should you be giving feedback?

Performance review has become more coaching than simply grading now. A manager can’t come across a low performing employee and just give up on him. Instead he is expected to take the time to figure out what’s wrong and then guide his protege past it. The problem is this is trickier than it sounds.

No one teaches you how to critique someone well. There’s no course on it in college. It’s a soft skill you are expected to have once you start being responsible for others.

But like any skill, you’re going to be bad at it at first and you will need to develop it through practice. Here are some ways to start.

Be Prepared:

If you ever had to critique another human being, you know how that can feel like a balancing act. On one end, you don’t want to hurt any feelings. On the other end, your critique might go to complete waste and not spark any improvement.

These conversations are where you show how good of a leader you are. Your direct reports are going to come up to you expecting you to know what they should focus on. Respect that and come prepared.

How should you be getting ready? By gathering information and documenting it.

Memory is a fickle friend and it will walk out on you when you need it. But when you keep notes and tabs on moments you want to go back to, you don’t need to rely on memory. Maybe you notice a potential area for improvement but both of you may be in the middle of something else. Perhaps others have also making their observations and would be happy to share their experiences with you.

There are plenty of sources and opportunities for you to note down a moment for feedback and improvement. Your job is to bring them all together and find out what stands out the most so your direct report knows what to focus on.

When your staff can tell that you have been looking over them, they can tell that you care about them, They will respect your feedback all the more and take your teachings to heart.

Timing is Everything

You hear this the most when talking about relationships. But what you have between your employees and yourself is also a type of relationship. This is actually similar to what a parent and child have. If you are a parent, would you really only guide your child only once in awhile?

This is where real time feedback comes in.

This type of feedback allows for constant learning since the best way to teach someone is by having that person learn on the job. They can take what they just learned and apply it. They grow faster and this also gives you a chance to see if that person is ready to take on more.

HR always tries to increase metrics like employee engagement. They create initiatives meant to keep people interested and absorbed in their work. But they’re barking up the wrong tree. Leaders are the ones who do the engaging. When a person is given the chance to constantly stretch their skills and knowledge, boredom is never an issue.

With the generation of millennials joining the workforce, more frequent review sessions will start to happen. Relying on old models will no longer be effective. Quality work is not created simply because someone great happened to join your company. Consistent quality only occurs when you consistently work on helping others produce that quality. If you teach well, they will learn.

The Umpire Says…You’re Safe!

When was the last time someone walked up to you and only insulted you? Not your work, your family, friends, skills, opinions but just you. How would you feel?

You would probably take it personally. And rightly so if someone ever did that to you. But how often does that happen? Why do so many take criticism so personally?

You can relate to taking something personally. Whenever your results, methods, preferences, anything of yours gets put down, some part of you (maybe all of you) takes it to heart and sees it as a direct attack on you yourself.

Now what if they meant something else entirely?

That’s the gap between what you hear and what you feel. That same gap exists with anyone you give feedback to. Your intention may be directed towards one part of what they did but depending on how you deliver your words, all they hear is: “Wow, you suck.”

The key lesson here is to not make the other party feel like they’re getting attacked.

The moment they feel like that, the conversation stops being a productive discussion. Then all you will start to hear are passive aggressive comments, silence or attempts to defend themselves. Once you reach this point, you have to fight an uphill battle to get them listening to you again.

Instead of letting that happen, strong leaders focus on creating safety. If the person you’re giving feedback to feels like you’re not going to judge or attack them, they open up and actually talk to you instead of worrying how they appear to you.

The sad truth is that most people go about their everyday lives stuck in this mindset of taking what happens to them personally. In a high tension situation like a performance review, this mindset is stronger than ever. Your job is to make sure you separate between who they are and how their work can be improved.

Here is a bonus tip to get you started.

Compare the following language:

“You should have spent more time on analyzing your data and checking your model.”

“I feel that if more time had been spent on the data input steps, this model would have been correct.”

What’s the difference between these two sentences? It is the use of the word “you”. When someone else uses this word, they make you feel like this is only about you. Take out that word from your vocabulary and you will have a much easier time.

Guide, Don’t Tell

When you give feedback, you assume the role of a teacher. If you were like most kids growing up, you sat at your desk all day listening to a teacher tell you what you’re supposed to know. You didn’t feel like you were as much learning as you were cramming. In the end, you forget everything after you took the test.

This is because unless your teachers made you apply what you learned, you never formed a real connection in your head. When you had to apply you learned, that is when you really understood the concept. This is done by making your direct reports think for themselves.

I used to teach a competitive board game, popular in Asia, called Go. I gave lectures and problems for my students to study but I found playing against them to be most effective. This is because I could guide them in a real game.

That meant instead of punishing every mistake a student made, I played moves that made the students realize their mistakes on their own. Perhaps I exposed a weakness without directly attacking it. Or I drew attention to more urgent areas of the board.

My goal was to get them to think to themselves: “Oh! I should have realized that earlier.”

In giving feedback, that could mean you move the conversation to exploring alternative solutions. That could mean allowing your staff research other possible methods as compared to the current one.

If the other side comes up with the answer themselves, even if partially, they become more committed to further improvement than if you just told them to do something a certain way.

As a bonus, you also get to see another person’s face light up as they discover the answer on their own.

Taking Action

So you got a safe atmosphere and ideas are just bursting forth. Your feedback is actually being heard. But all of this will go to waste if you don’t close on the last step of the process: creating an action plan.

Let’s first talk about what would happen if you don’t do this.

You finish up your conversation, go your separate ways and then that’s it. Nothing changes.

You can have the most insightful discussion while giving feedback but if there’s no execution involved, nothing will change. Your direct report might work on a skill they found challenging but they won’t know if they’re improving, if their current training is enough or if they’re even going the right way.

This is also the same with meetings. At the end, you must go over what you say you will get specifically done by the next meeting. The same goes for feedback and reviews. Otherwise both parties are going to forget the details and have no direction going forward.

How do you create an action plan? In a short list:

1. Identify the challenge areas.
2. Pull together some resources to aid in the learning curve
3. Decide what training can be helpful
4. Plan check in times

This part of the feedback process is the most dynamic. The conversation isn’t over once you finish it. Both of you have to keep it going so you can see the magic as it happens.

The Challenge:

Now I’m going to challenge you to go out and provide some feedback to a couple of close friends. Have them do the same for you. You can talk about strengths and weaknesses. Explain what you’re doing here.

There’s no improvement without application and practice. That’s my feedback for you.

In a future post, I will talk about why giving feedback to your best performers may be harder than you think.

Thank you for reading and this is Mike X Huang, signing off.