Feedback – it isn’t just for performance reviews anymore!

Posted on: May 2nd, 2019 by Nicole Obrien | No Comments

I recently read an article out of Harvard Business Review (HBR) that challenged me to radically reconsider what effective feedback really consists of.  There is certainly feedback that is necessary to correct clearly defined processes that aren’t being executed properly (for example an employee not executing a critical step simply due to missing information) and there is feedback that is necessary to create a path to excellence by motivating and building on inherent natural skill sets.

One thing that I believe CITY does really well, is recognizing an individual’s natural strengths and capitalizing on them by putting them into positions where these natural tendencies are likely to shine, creating a trifecta benefiting the customer, team member, and CITY.  We do this through tools like the DISC assessment in the hiring process which helps to identify an individual’s natural approach to problem solving and interactions as well as through performance feedback systems such as Threads; intended to capture real time information on individual’s performance by catching them doing something right, and making brief note of it as a feedback comment in the Threads system. (Yes, that was a very thinly veiled attempt to shame and hopefully motivate you to note several positive interactions or accomplishments you were aware of this week and note them in Threads for those deserving team members!)

Well, recent research has shown that we are on the right track, however I think we can be much more effective by having more deliberate conversations about what is going right in the course of your team’s performance execution.  I’ll save you the play by play deep dive of the research and reveal the most relatable highlights that I think will produce the most immediate and effective results for increasing your team’s dedication to excellence.

In brief, research is revealing that humans stink at actually evaluating and rating subjective (involving personal opinion) categories.  We are led astray by a multitude of influences from our own characteristics and opinions, to rater bias that can be driven by something as simple as having your morning getting off to a bad start- we’re human so we are inherently bad at eliminating the influence of our feelings and opinions on our ratings.  Feedback should be simply about telling people what we think of their performance AND how they can do it better.  However, surprisingly research revealed that telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel; when you then tell them how we think they should improve, it actually hinders their learning.

Clear feedback in the form of clear instructions for methodical, documentable procedures is useful in certain circumstances- anything that a checklist can be applied to benefits from the feedback outlined above.  For example, when a co-worker is missing a critical step in a process like a route apprentice forgetting to replace a specific product at a customer location or missing a step in proper invoicing.  These mistakes are usually unintentional and part of the educational process of training and thus benefit from immediate instructional feedback. “If you don’t do X,Y,Z…. this happens; correct it by….”

However, when you try to apply this type of feedback to a less black and white subjective area- like rating a co-worker’s communication or teamwork skills , which we are all likely to  have different opinions regarding what  “excellence” in this area looks like, research  clearly shows that pointing out shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning- it impairs it.


In “The Feedback Fallacy” of the March/April 2019 edition of HBR, the key to giving effective feedback in these hard to define areas was revealed.  Learning, it has been discovered, “…is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is.”  The article goes into the neurological reasons for this which I’ll spare you, but in short, when you highlight people’s shortcomings, their brains go into “fight or flight” mode, consequently seriously impairing their ability to learn.  To overcome this, all you have to do is focus their attention on something they are doing well.  It turns out that most learning takes place when a leader pays attention to something that is working well (something they naturally excel at or a scenario that succeeded). 

Excellence is impossible to define because each of our brains has a different concept of what this should look like, yet getting there is easy if you can make note of specific examples that demonstrate your concept of excellence, linking it with something your team member has already executed and  then building on it.  Capture those moments where you can say, “That!  Yes, that!”  “Make that happen again and then add this step to it.” 

Excellence is not the opposite of failure.  By drawing attention to failures, all you’re doing is teaching your co-worker what failure looks like.  They may get a very clear picture of what failure looks like, but they will still have absolutely no concept of what your personal definition of excellence is or how to transition from failure to excellence.    


By highlighting a successful pattern that they’re already familiar with or executing well, you’re creating a recognizable event that they can anchor to, recreate, refine, build, and learn from.  The key is not to simply tell them how “good or well” they have performed.  This is nowhere near specific enough to drive growth or learning.  It’s a nice platitude, but if you want to drive excellence you will need to be more specific.  Instead, describe exactly what you witnessed or what happened that you want to see repeated.  There is nothing more believable and authoritative that sharing what you saw and how it made you feel.  Your team may doubt your expertise on excellence or any number of topics, but they know that no one is more authoritative regarding your own feelings and experiences than you.  Use phrases such as:

                “This is how that came across for me.”

                “This is what that made me think.”

                “Did you see what you did there?  You…”

                “I noticed that the customer really responded positively when you…”

                “Wow, did you notice when you said, “_____”  that really diffused the customer’s anger.”

Because these are your personal reactions, they are your truth, so when you replay them in specific detail, you’re not judging or rating them, you’re simply relating your very personal experience.  Specifically, because it is your personal observation and reaction, it is instantly humble, honest, and powerful.  All things a great leader should reflect their team if they want their team to shoot for excellence and earn the respect of their team as well as the privilege to grow along with them. 

Now build on that momentum by making note of some of the things you see going well all around you- whether it is a team member reporting directly to you or someone that isn’t your direct report.  If you do this regularly, consistently, and with specific observable detail, your performance reviews will practically write themselves.  Excellence is right around the corner!

“The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.”  Tom Landry


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