To gain fresh insight into performance management, we recently conducted in-depth interviews with 67 top-flight performers in fields ranging from theatre, film and TV to medicine and emergency services. The results have completely upturned our thinking on the subject and led us to propose a new blueprint for performance management.
In our earlier article, we looked at how to create the right environment for regular and personalized feedback. Now it’s time to consider what organizations need to do to help leaders deliver feedback to team members that drive performance improvements.
Effective feedback between employees and managers is complicated because people are complicated. In the past, organizations have sought to help leaders navigate this complexity by providing them with clear frameworks to operate in, including conversation models, scripts, formulas and rules.
But the elite performers we spoke to showed us another — potentially much more effective — approach. They have focused on developing a deeper understanding of human behavior, because this enables them to provide nuanced, personalized feedback that helps people shift their performance.
This is not to say that process is not important. Rather, we think that leaders need to balance learning about process with learning about human behavior as part of their leadership communication efforts. At the start of their careers, the balance is likely to lean more heavily on process. But as they develop and refine their behavioral observation skills, the balance will shift and human behavior can become the anchor point for feedback discussions.
Our research participants described a very consistent set of traits that they believe define a successful feedback giver. By helping leaders to develop these five key characteristics, organizations can improve the quality and impact of effective employee feedback conversations.
When providing feedback to employees, it’s important to be able to give feedback when and where it’s needed, even though it may not always be what the recipient wants to hear. This takes real courage.
Leaders who show humility create an environment of trust and openness that is ideal for the development of individuals and teams. Filmmaker Isabel d’Escragnolle-Taunay told us that she always opens herself up for feedback from new teams. She explains: “This means people also become open for me to give them feedback — because I was humble first.”
People are more likely to listen to and act on feedback if it comes from somebody who knows what they are talking about. As a yachtsman, Furio Benussi says, “It’s important to have the CV so people trust in your idea. This gives you credibility. You can’t be a leader without that CV.”
Effective feedback givers are experts at knowing what to say and when to say it. They can tailor the message to each individual and choose the words most likely to inspire action. This is only possible if you can empathize with the feedback recipient and see the situation through their eyes.
Providing honest feedback to employees can be extremely uncomfortable, but it is central to the process of helping individuals improve their performance. As Alexander Campbell, Principal Dancer at the Royal Ballet says: “The people that I’ve seen reach [a] consistently high level over a long period of time have found people that they trust to give them honest feedback, to tell [them] when they were dipping and hadn’t even realized.”
Leaders in the corporate world have traditionally had plenty — and, arguably, too much — time to consider what feedback they need to deliver to employees. But if organizations are to move away from annual review cycles and towards a more free-flowing performance management culture, then leaders will have to learn how to deliver spontaneous feedback to team members. This takes practice and skill.
The elite performers we spoke to are masters of the art, having spent many hours studying human behavior and sharing their observations in the moment. When we asked them about the thought process they went through when delivering feedback, they all described a remarkably similar internal dialogue. It consists of a series of split-second questions that the feedback giver asks themselves before they act:
“Do you adjust your style based on the personality of the recipient? Absolutely. You have to understand that every time you’re giving a feedback, you’re dealing with an individual who can respond in so many different ways.”
Becca Niemeyer, Director of Individual Giving, Public Theater, New York City
It goes without saying that feedback is more likely to shift performance when it is tailored to the individual. This is the purpose of feedback. But what does personalized feedback really look like, and how can leaders ensure they deliver it?
Knowing the person you are providing feedback to is critical, because it enables you to read the individual and the situation and to shape the feedback accordingly. But this is only the start. Other steps you can take to personalize your leadership communication skills include linking feedback to a higher vision or purpose (of the individual or team), tailoring it to the specific career stage of the recipient, and adapting what you say and how you say it so that is it culturally appropriate for your audience.
Research participants from fields as wide-ranging as military, sport, medicine and the arts all described a process of collecting and summarizing their observations, which many of them refer to as taking “notes”. One participant summed it up as follows:
“After each play, we have a notes session where we share feedback. The… notes are not there to blame people. They are just for helping to highlight stuff that has gone wrong with the mind to improve.”
Matt Noddings, Production Manager, Royal Opera House
Notes are a constructive way of facilitating feedback to team members and have many advantages over other methods used to gather and deliver that feedback. For a start, note-taking can be made a routine part of day-to-day work, so feedback becomes more spontaneous and less like a special event.
Then there’s the fact that notes are based on specific behavioral observations, which means they are more likely to provide a clear and objective view on performance. They are also shared in a collaborative spirit, where the feedback “receiver” becomes part of the process for creating the best possible response to what has been observed.
Performance is all about context — what makes someone a hero in one setting could make them a zero in another. The job of a leader is to be radically honest about what individuals bring to the business and steer them to those areas where their gifts can shine. This is something the elite performers we spoke to are exceptionally good at. So, how do they do it?
The word we kept encountering throughout our research was “capacity”. Capacity differs from “potential” (the preferred concept in the commercial world) because it does not presume any direction of travel. Instead, it looks at a person’s underlying traits and abilities, combined with the energy they bring to different activities, and uses that to determine a range of possible destinations they could aim for.
While a person’s capacity can vary over time, it does have limits. Feedback receivers can hear all types of feedback, but if they are not in the space to perform their best, the well intentions could fall flat. What people in fields such as sport and the arts are very good at doing is having forthright conversations with each other about where their limits are. We believe it is time for those in the corporate world to follow suit and develop the empathy and courage needed to be honest about capacity.
Download our performance management whitepaper to learn more about leadership feedback, what makes an effective feedback giver and discover what actions your organization can take to create a broader performance management culture that enables individuals and teams to excel.