Performance reviews are an unpleasant but inevitable reality of modern corporate life. Employees loathe getting them, and managers hate giving them. Even as the format and techniques have evolved, with companies including GE and JP Morgan Chase moving from annual reviews to continuous feedback, the essence remains: Criticism must be delivered and received.
Here are four principles all managers should consider next time they sit down with their subordinates for this dreaded ritual:
You’ve probably heard of the “feedback sandwich,” first advocated by the advice book The One-Minute Manager, where the bad news is book-ended between praise. Don’t serve that up.
Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz calls it the “shit sandwich,” because all but the most junior employees can see through the technique, and recognize that the praise is offered only to make the criticism more palatable. If praise isn’t sincere, it can erode trust as much as overly hard criticism.
“It’s extremely important that you believe in the feedback that you give and not say anything to manipulate the recipient’s feelings,” Horowitz says. “You can’t fake the funk.”
In sports, feedback should identify performance flaws and devise ways to address them, such as adjusting a batting stance or rethinking nutrition. But in business employees are often given criticism without any remedies, says Deborah Bright, a former competitive diver and now an executive coach, in the Harvard Business Review.
That’s a missed opportunity to offer constructive advice. Bright recommends soliciting suggestions for how to fix shortcomings, as a good sports coach does: “They encourage the athlete to problem-solve with them: ‘What felt off on that dive?’ or ‘What could you do to get that leg straighter or start that twist earlier?’”
Likewise, she writes, “Engaging employees in a specific solution ensures they’ll get it right next time, communicates respect for their opinions, and builds their confidence.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs wasn’t shy about telling employees when their work fell short, and he was often unsparing. But it came from a position of respect for the employee and their potential. Kim Scott, a Silicon Valley veteran, quotes Jobs in her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity:
“The most important thing I think you can do for someone who’s really good and who’s really being counted on is to point out to them when they’re not —when their work isn’t good enough. And to do it very clearly and to articulate why… and to get them back on track.”
Jobs could be brutal, and his approach isn’t for everyone, Scott says. But if employees know you have confidence in their abilities, they should be able to hear it when their work doesn’t measure up.
Confrontation is pretty much never a productive way to communicate. Two-way conversations produce much better outcomes. That’s known by professionals who interrogate terror suspects, and it’s also true in business, says Mark Murphy, a leadership coach and author of the forthcoming Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages.
If a manager wants their message to be heard—not defensively rejected—they should be friendly, welcoming and open to dialogue. Productive conversations start when managers “disarm themselves” by signaling they’re not angry or interested in yelling, but want to reach mutually agreeable outcomes, Murphy writes.
He recommends a 50-50 mix of statements to questions. Striving for that ratio is also good way to test whether you’ve gone off track: If you’re only making statements, you’re not having a conversation.