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.)

Building an Exceptional Staff: The Research Hospital Model

Although the Mayo Clinic facilities may not serve as a great model for other nonprofits, some of their practices might.
I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend whose dad has been suffering from intense gastrointestinal problems for months. Multiple doctors and tons of tests but nothing to show for it except ‘hang in there, maybe it’ll clear up on its own.’

After being hospitalized during a particularly severe bout, the doctor persuaded him to head to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Four hours after arriving there, with zero new tests, his team of Mayo Clinic GI specialists figured out he was having an extremely rare allergic reaction to his blood pressure medication. They’ve seen only 15 other cases; it’s rare and new enough that there isn’t anything in the medical literature yet. One of the problems confounding the diagnosis: he’d end up in the hospital only when his symptoms were severe. His blood pressure would be unusually low as a result of those symptoms, they’d remove him from the blood pressure medicine, he’d feel better, and then after being discharged he’d start taking the drug again and the symptoms would return.

How was it that the doctors in Minnesota were able to figure this out – a complex and extremely rare condition – in a matter of hours while countless doctors before them failed? A big part of the answer is that through their role at the Mayo Clinic, which is essentially a teaching and research hospital, they collectively see a huge number of patients with an extremely wide array of challenging cases. Their breadth of experience, and especially with difficult diagnoses, meant they’d simply seen a much wider variety of conditions than most and their diagnostic skills were sharper as a result.

How does this relate to nonprofits? Most nonprofits don’t invest much of their intellectual capital or their resources into staff development, growing and stretching people through their tenure at an organization or over their career to help them become exceptional advocates and nonprofit leaders. Some of the best nonprofit folks incidentally end up with exposure to a wide variety of specific challenges and circumstances, and some figure out how to seek that breadth of experience out themselves, but most nonprofits could probably do a better job of deliberately exposing their staff to a wider universe of new challenges and difficult problems.

This doesn’t necessarily mean someone needs to spend time working across different fields, moving through fundraising, program management, administration, organizing, and other departments. The GI specialists at the Mayo Clinic are truly specialists in a very specific field. But it does mean figuring out how to exposure your team to a wide variety of challenges within that field, making sure they are building up loads of real experience problem solving (problem solving skills) and exposure to a wide array of circumstances from which to draw when troubleshooting problems and crafting strategies (“maybe this time we could use that strategy we tried that other time combined with this new idea I’ve been thinking about”).

A lot of nonprofit folks end up with this sort of exposure along the way, but I suspect most nonprofit managers could do a better job of deliberately making sure that their direct reports pick up a wide and challenging array of experiences.

Watching the Game Film (for Nonprofits)

This post was originally published on Amy Sample Ward’s terrific nonprofit technology blog earlier this week.

For professional football players, the six days between games are jammed with practice, gym workouts, and travel. They also include time spent watching the film from the previous game, play by play, evaluating, learning, and preparing for the next game. I don’t know as much about other sports, but I’m guessing that professional basketball, hockey, baseball and other players have similar routines during their seasons.

It’s true that for pro athletes, everything they do during the week amounts to preparation for game day. Game day performance is what matters. It’s also true that many pro athletes are supported by extensive coaching staffs, sophisticated video recordings, and powerful analytic tools to help them understand what they did and how they might improve.

But a lot of what nonprofit folks do is similarly performance-oriented: every time you present on a panel at a conference, every time you pitch a prospective donor or funder, every time you talk to a reporter. You prepare (or not), and then you perform well (or not). And even without the same kind of evaluation and training resources at our disposal, we still have tools and capacity to carefully evaluate our performance and plug it in to fast-cycle feedback loops so we can continuously improve. Nearly every nonprofit has a video camera now, tripods are cheap, and it’s easy to set up to record right before you begin your presentation. When you talk with reporters, it’s easy to evaluate the print story or broadcast (not just reviewing it, which everyone already does, but studying it to figure out what you did well and what your screwed up). You may not have someone with you on every funder pitch, but it’s not hard to arrange at least some of those conversations with a colleague who won’t do too much talking during the meeting, so someone else can pay more attention to how well you do. For much of what you do, you can figure out ways to intentionally review your performance, identify what you did well and what you need to work on, and then craft a strategy for improving.

Incidentally, it’s the coaches who really immerse themselves in the film after every game, studying the game film on the flight home or first thing Monday morning, grading every player on every play, and then reviewing the films with the players. What if the more senior folks in your organization were explicitly responsible for coaching the newer members of the team? And what if their job evaluation was based partly on how effectively they are at coaching the more junior folks?

An organizational culture that emphasizes evaluation, feedback loops, learning, and intention improvement doesn’t happen by accident. For most nonprofit folks, the limitation isn’t about resources but about how serious they are about improving.

(Photo credit: Flickr rburtzel)

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.