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How to provide high-quality performance feedback

Performance feedback is the information that we receive about other people’s reactions to our work output. That includes what we’re doing well, what we can improve, and other details that we may not be aware of on our own. Giving consistent high-quality feedback is what sets great managers and coworkers apart, but it takes regular practice. Interpersonal risk and uncertainty about how to frame feedback can hold us back from offering enough of it. When we avoid giving direct, actionable, and focused feedback, we cut off communication that’s vital to our team’s success.

Performance feedback is a massive focus area for all companies, and for good reason. Feedback helps us make sure that information is being openly shared between individuals who work closely together and increases their effectiveness. It makes a lot of sense that companies care so much about their feedback culture. In fact, one of the most common learning and development initiatives is training on how to give and receive feedback well. But, for all of the time, energy, and effort we spend thinking about feedback, we usually don't give enough of it. And, when we do, it doesn’t always land how we hope it will.

So, what should you stay aware of in order to provide consistent high-quality feedback?

Biased feedback is causing attrition

See how performance feedback is affecting retention in 2023

4 steps for giving high-quality feedback

The following four steps can help you become more confident that you're offering helpful, high-quality, and objective feedback.

1. Start by giving enough of it

Even though employees crave feedback, many managers are reluctant to give it. This is often due to a lack of time, fear of being direct, or underdeveloped feedback skills. However, when managers don't give enough feedback to their teams, it makes their jobs harder. It also does their direct reports a disservice because they don’t have the information they need to be successful at work. 

Textio’s research shows that certain groups receive less performance feedback overall. Performance review word counts indicate that Black men receive roughly one-third less feedback than white women. And, this carries over to less formal feedback settings as well. When thinking about how this translates to employee engagement, retention, and growth, the pattern has alarming consequences. Giving high-quality feedback is in everyone's best interest and it ensures equitable access to ongoing coaching. So it's worth the time to continuously pause and give feedback several times a year.  

Image from Textio's Language Bias in Performance Feedback report shows that Black and Latinx employees receive less feedback on average than their white and asian peers.Managers should offer their teams feedback at least once a month. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving non-stop performance reviews, but touching base regularly should be a given. A great place to do this is in existing one-on-one meetings. All employees should know what they're doing well and how they can continue to improve throughout the year. 

When performance management is viewed as only a once-a-year review, it makes the barriers to giving feedback too high. And, that can result in a feedback-avoidant culture. To stay on top of performance feedback, it helps to have a regular cadence with standardized templates.  

2. Stick to work-focused areas

One area to avoid when giving feedback is anything that isn’t related to someone’s core job responsibilities. It sounds obvious, but in practice, it can be hard to remember. As an example, let's say you find someone on your team frustrating to work with. That may seem work-related because it relates to your experience working with them, but it actually isn't in scope. When we frame someone as “frustrating," it veers into an unhelpful and potentially biased judgment statement

The quality of being “frustrating” is subjective. It’s far better to focus on what this person should do to improve their actual job performance. Specificity and relevance not only provide a more constructive path forward but also leads to feedback that's less likely to trigger someone’s defensiveness. How you frame feedback makes all the difference in whether it’s objective, unbiased, and valuable to the recipient. Focusing on outcomes instead of how you experience someone’s personality improves the quality and credibility of your feedback. 

Less relevant
"You are frustrating to work with because you make unilateral decisions."
More relevant
"When you make decisions that impact the whole team, try to seek input from everyone involved before implementing your idea." 

Feedback like the less helpful example above not only compromises the objectivity and credibility of what you're saying, but it can also negatively impact equity at your company. Relevance is a helpful litmus test because it helps us avoid personality feedback. Feedback about personality traits is given disproportionately to some groups like women, employees of color, and those over 40 years old. And, it comes with an opportunity cost. Instead of offering concrete insights focused on business results, strengths, and growth areas, biased perceptions are introduced. And, this can inhibit employee growth.  

Image from Textio's Language Bias in Performance Feedback report, women receive 76% more personality-based feedback than men.Personality feedback is also more subtle than you’d think. It’s not only the obvious terms like “abrasive” or “cold" that are problematic. Even positive personality feedback like “friendly,” “warm,” and “outgoing” can result in the same inequities as personality criticisms. This is counterintuitive because saying something complimentary about someone seems positive. But, it isn't always.

Take the word “passionate” as an example. It seems like a compliment, but in its most harmful usage, it can be a euphemism for “can't get along with others.” Black and Latinx employees are 2.1x more likely to be described as "passionate" than their coworkers. And, even if it's not being used as a harmful euphemism, "passion" is still not relevant to performance. The point is make sure that you stick to relevant goals and work-focused feedback.    

3. Clarify your message by being concise and direct

Once you ensure that you are offering relevant, frequent, and useful feedback, make sure that the message is clear to the recipient. Leaving room for interpretation can result in misalignment. Clarity is crucial. Clear feedback is concise, direct, and written simply enough for everyone to understand. Long sentences and paragraphs make it harder for the recipient to parse and comprehend what you're saying. And, indirect feedback often results in confusion. For example, if you've ever been given the feedback sandwich (positive, critical, positive), then you've experienced feedback that isn't as effective as it could be.  

When feedback doesn't offer a clear message, it's possible for a direct report to have a completely different picture of their performance than their manager. Spending a whole bunch of time wordsmithing feedback, only to have it land differently than how it was intended is a frustrating experience for everyone. Some of the most common points of misunderstanding happen when our feedback isn't sending a clear, concise, and direct message.

Less clear
"I feel like you could perhaps be more proactive about how you're managing incoming support requests, but your phone presence is pretty strong." 
"Your phone presence is really strong. Because of this, you’re great at building rapport with clients and earning their trust. To continue to improve, focus on staying ahead of incoming support requests. Specifically, aim for an average response time of 24 hours or less for any client communications." 

Specific observations that are supported by examples increase the credibility of your feedback. Also removing indirect statements like "I think," "I feel like," and "I guess" can help increase the clarity of what you're saying. To make sure you are as clear as possible, use clarifying phrases in your feedback such as: 

  • "To clarify…"
  • "In other words..."
  • "The message I’m sending here is…"
  • "If there is one thing you should take away from this feedback, it’s…"

4. Offer actionable suggestions and next steps 

Most importantly, what is the next step? Feedback should always be coupled with concrete suggestions for implementing it. Information alone doesn’t lead to change, it’s how the information is acted upon. And when it comes to actionability in feedback, underrepresented groups receive lower-quality and less actionable feedback. As a point of proof, Black women receive nearly 9x as much feedback that’s not actionable compared to white men under 40. Vague statements without any actionable component like “you’re doing a great job” or "try to stay more organized" are not helpful and hold employees back

Image from Textio's Language Bias in Performance Feedback report showing the frequency of feedback that isn't actionable by demographic group.

Vague feedback that isn't supported by concrete examples and suggestions won't improve performance. Great managers make sure that all of their feedback offers some actionable next steps. In the example below, "try to stay more organized' is really vague. It's not clear when this was an issue in the past, or which specific areas would benefit most from more organization. It would be more helpful to specify the exact change that needs to take place. Maybe this person needs to focus on organizing their work for stronger internal alignment. Or, maybe they would benefit from an increased focus on time management to keep deliverables on track. Whatever the request is, make it explicit. Not only does this feel less jarring to the person receiving the feedback, but it gives them specific steps they can put into action right away.  

Less actionable
"Try to stay more organized." 
More actionable
"Organize your work so that it's easy for others to find."
"Organize your work so that you can give status updates in a timely manner."
"Organize your workload so that you can meet the deadlines."

really helpful to take the work out of implementing feedback for the person you’re giving it to. Helpful phrases to hold your reports accountable are: 

  • “What you can do next…”
  • “Next time, try...”
  • “A possible approach to this is…”

Offering high-quality feedback makes everyone’s job easier and keeps your team more engaged, effective, and efficient

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