How to Give Feedback to Your Employees: Nine Tips

This usually isn’t the best way to offer feedback to your staff.
In our research on nonprofit organizations, we found that more nonprofit staffers complained about the weak management skills of their executive directors and supervisors than about any other problem.

Among the most critical but under-developed skills: feedback-giving. Here is some straightforward advice:

1) Actually give feedback to your staffers. The alternatives (passive-aggressive outbursts, complaining about one staffer to other staffers, abruptly firing them, wishing you had the gumption to abruptly fire them) all suck.

2) Provide feedback frequently. The annual evaluation has its place, but it’s a poor substitute for regular feedback throughout the year.

3) Assume she was acting in good faith with good intentions. Assume her motives were all spot-on, in other words, and focus instead on her words and actions.

4) It’s often helpful to start by asking your employee to talk through what happened, what she did and why, and how she would evaluate her own performance (whether you are talking about a specific event or performance over the course of some time period). It gives her a chance to set the tone and she may have already identified some of the successes and critiques you had planned to raise. You might even shift your view on her performance if you know more about what she did and why.

5) Be direct and clear when providing feedback on the things she did that you liked and on the things she might (or should) have done differently. Even managers who do a good job of providing regular feedback often stumble on this point, just as many people often stumble when communicating with board members, friends, lovers, spouses, and kids. You have to be clear about what worked and what didn’t if you expect your staffer to remain motivated and improve her performance.

6) But don’t be a jerk about it! “Direct and clear” doesn’t mean patronizing, insensitive, or rude.

7) Offer very clear direction on what she might do differently next time, on what lessons to draw from the experience, and on how to improve. If you don’t do this, and she doesn’t improve, her subsequent underperformance is on you.

8) If you are trying to foster a culture of innovation you have to reward people for taking risks. This doesn’t mean that you should celebrate every risk someone takes; if you establish clear boundaries and expectations for risk-taking, you can evaluate your staff based on how well they operated within those limitations. But if your team believes they’ll get chastised when risks they take don’t pan out, you’ll be encouraging risk-aversion rather than risk-tolerance. Likewise, if you find ways to reward your team for taking smart risks even when they don’t work out, you’ll incentivize the innovative culture you are after.

9) Finally, you may have to work hard to avoid making people feel defensive when initiative a feedback interaction. Part of managing this is ensuring that you are calling out the good and the bad throughout your frequent feedback interactions (and making a point of calling out the good more often is usually pretty helpful). Part of tackling this is clearly establishing the feedback process in your organization as a frequent learning loop. Every feedback interaction is an opportunity for someone on your team to figure out how to improve their performance and for you to learn more about what they need from you to excel in their work. And part of sidestepping someone’s instinctive defensiveness is getting to know them well enough to figure out how – with each of your direct reports – to create the right space for a productive feedback interaction.

These tips are easier to write down in a blog post than they are to execute, but none are especially difficult if you commit to making productive feedback interactions an important part of your organizational culture.

(Photo by Flickr user Orange Steeler.)

Doubling Attendance in One Year: A Success Story

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History attendance numbers.
I’m an unabashed Nina Simon fan, and I love this post on her Museum 2.0 blog about their growth in visitor numbers, how they pulled off the impressive growth she describes, and their plans for next year. This is the type of candid, under the hood, here’s-what-we-did-what-worked-and-what-didn’t writing that I think we need much more of in the nonprofit world.

The “five great ways to do something” lists (guilty), the “a great example of doing it wrong” posts (guilty), the big picture trends stories (guilty) … all of these can be useful, but often I find the posts that lay it all out there – good and bad, lessons learned, what they’re going to try next – to be the most helpful. There isn’t anything else like it: real social sector folks describing concretely and candidly what they actually did and what they learned.

We blogged about another of Nina’s terrific ‘lessons learned’ posts back in May in case you missed it (“Year One as a Museum Director … Survived!”).

The “Hot Seat” (or, “Talk Less, Listen More”)

As I worked my way through the Founder Institute’s startup incubator program last summer, my incubator classmates and I would frequently find ourselves on the “hot seat,” presenting a short pitch to a panel of mentors, after which the mentors would proceed to brutally critique our performance. Among the inviolate rules: even as the panel of mentors would lambaste our pitch, we had to simply stand there and listen. We weren’t allowed to respond, to rebut, or to push back. I’m told this is a conventional practice in architecture programs and art schools, but having attending neither it was new to me.

And it was awesome. We each had to learn, in a humbling and publicly painful way, to shut up and listen. It didn’t matter what my intention was, or how right I was, or what I knew that they didn’t … they were the audience, and if they understood something differently than I had intended, or if they didn’t buy my argument, or if my story wasn’t persuasive, the challenge for me was to listen intently enough to understand what they heard. Only by keeping my mouth shut, and not defending, challenging, or explaining, was I able to really hear them and consequently improve my pitch.

I think the key was grasping that the success of my pitch wasn’t about me, it was about them. It didn’t matter how right I might have been, or how compelling I thought my arguments were. If they weren’t persuaded, then I had failed, and the only way to learn where my powers of persuasion had fallen short was to shut up and listen.

Anyone who has spent time fundraising or campaigning knows this to be true, but even when we know it in the abstract it can be tough to remember in the heat of an actual pitch to an actual prospect, or when a colleague or (gasp!) employee is telling you what they think you did wrong, or when you are trying to sell a story to a reporter or an idea to an elected official.

Talk less, listen more.

Giving Feedback: A Starting Point

This was originally published as a guest post on Frogloop on April 30, 2012.

Some approaches to giving feedback are more useful than others. Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games photo via Inc. Magazine (Creative Commons).
Over the course of more than 100 interviews with nonprofit staffers while writing The Nimble Nonprofit, “managing people” turned up on the list of “skills that my executive director sucks at” more than any other. And giving feedback is one of the specific skills that nonprofit managers seem especially weak at.

It’s not just nonprofit executive directors that struggle with this challenge. Anyone at a nonprofit who manages people – a senior staff attorney managing a team of six lawyers, a development director who supervises a grants manager and a membership manager, a communications coordinator directing the work of a media consultant, a program associate managing an intern, a site manager supervising a group of volunteers – giving feedback is an important skill for all of these folks.

And giving feedback, especially negative feedback, is hard. It’s awkward to tell someone you aren’t satisfied with her performance, or to explain to her what she’s doing wrong, especially when you know she puts in long hours, she works hard, you don’t pay her as much as she deserves for the work, and there’s a good chance she’s your friend in addition to being your direct report. It’s not surprising, then, that so many managers give vague, soft-pedaled feedback that obscures the criticisms.

Swinging too far in the other direction is a problem, as well, where the feedback comes off as a brusque attack on the recipient’s character, integrity, and basic self-worth. You might think you’re doing him the favor of candor and clarity, but if it sounds like you are questioning his basic value to the organization your feedback won’t probably have the desired effect, either.

Some advice:

* Offer both positive and constructive feedback every time.
* Be direct, clear, and pleasant (which is very different from being nice, as Mike Monteiro points out).
* Provide concrete guidance on how to improve or remedy the problem.
* Give feedback frequently.
* Explicitly tie your feedback to your previously established and explicit expectations about their job performance.

The goal in giving feedback is – or at least should be – really, really simple: enable your staff to kick ass. Your feedback needs to validate and support. It needs to communicate in concrete terms what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. And it needs to be clear (so they understand it) and actionable (so they can do something with it).

A lot of smart folks have written a lot of smart things about giving feedback, and it might be worth spending some time skimming through some of the literature for ideas. The Harvard Business Review blog, Dummies.com, and the Manager Tools podcast are just a few good examples.

But these five principles, mixed in with a healthy dose of your own intuition and thoughtfulness, and topped with a commitment to try, learn, and improve, are a good place to start.

A Nonprofit Turnaround Story: The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

I’m an energetic fan of Nina Simon’s commitment to designing deeply participatory engagement, her willingness to experiment and take risks, and her transparency and candor in writing about her experiences.

This morning, on her Museum 2.0 blog, she reflects on her one-year anniversary as the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. It’s a great post, in part because of her candor about things that worked and things that didn’t. We would all benefit if more nonprofit executive directors wrote a post like this once a year about lessons learned.

I also love the post because of her characterization of their strategy for recovering a near-fatal financial situation:

Just doing it. We didn’t go through an extensive planning process followed by deliberative, careful steps forward. We had a vision, a short list of goals for the first year, and an energetic (if underfunded) attack. Over the past year, we’ve developed several planning methodologies and approaches to our work—such as our exhibition philosophy and community program development process—and we did it iteratively through a series of experiments. We tried and tested and played and worked our way forward, and we’re still doing it. It is, as Kathleen McLean puts it, “museum as prototype,” and it is exhilarating, thoughtful work for all of us.”

The approach aligns well with an argument Trey and I make in The Nimble Nonprofit: strategic plans can be really valuable, but do them quickly, write them in pencil, and aggressively experiment, learn, and adjust along the way. It’s a powerful model that enables groups to sidestep the typical – and painfully laborious and lengthy – strategic planning process while still taking the time to set a clear, thoughtful course. Importantly, it fundamentally integrates a learning cycle into the execution. The prototype model is powerful so long as it’s explicit and so long as there’s a real commitment to frequent assessments and adjustments. The assessments themselves shouldn’t resemble a traditional strategic planning process, either … they have to be smart, targeted, and fast.

Huge congrats to Nina for the post, and even huger congrats to the entire Santa Cruz Museum team for pulling off a remarkable turnaround.