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by Derek Loosvelt | April 25, 2019


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It's commonly though that, when giving performance reviews, all you have to do is point out employees’ mistakes so they can fix them. However, this is exactly what you shouldn't do, according to Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, co-authors of the new book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

Recently, Buckingham (head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute) and Goodall (senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco Systems) published an article in the Harvard Business Review about the right and wrong ways to give performance reviews; they were also the subjects of a related HBR podcast. Culled from that article (“The Feedback Fallacy”) and podcast (“What Managers Get Wrong About Feedback”), here are three things you’re likely doing wrong when reviewing the performance of your team. 

1. Focusing on mistakes, not successes. 

Buckingham and Goodall say this is the most glaring error that leaders make when giving performance feedback. According to B. & G., at best, pointing out mistakes leads to a mistake-free employee, and mistake-free “isn’t the same as great, and it’s not the same as excellent.” They add, “Excellence is also not the opposite of failure … Eradicating depression will get you no closer to joy. Divorce is mute on the topic of happy marriage. Exit interviews with employees who leave tell you nothing about why others stay. If you study failure, you’ll learn a lot about failure but nothing about how to achieve excellence. Excellence has its own pattern.” 

Instead of mistakes, B. & G. recommend focusing on what employees are doing well, when they’ve performed successfully. This is not to make them feel better but to let them know when they’re on their own unique path to success. Ideally, the goal of feedback should not be a “tidy adherence to a procedure agreed upon in advance,” but rather “people contributing their own unique and growing talents to a common good, when that good is ever-evolving.” 

To further illustrate this point, B. & G. point to legendary Dallas Cowboy Head Coach Tom Landry. Before the Cowboys were “America’s Team” and a two-time Super Bowl Champion, they were a terrible team (they went winless in Landry’s first season). Supposedly, part of the turnaround that Landry led had to do with how he reviewed his team’s performance. Instead of reviewing where each player went wrong—the missed tackles, missed kicks, dropped passes, fumbles, interceptions—he created a personal highlight reel for each player only including his successful plays. Landry believed there were an infinite number of ways to do something wrong but just a fixed number of doing something right. 

Landry’s focus, B. & G. point out, wasn’t on praise but learning. According to B. & G., “His instincts told him that each person would improve his performance most if he could see, in slow motion, what his own personal version of excellence looked like.” 

2. Saying "good job."

Telling employees they’re doing a “good job” is about as useful as pointing out their mistakes, according to B. & G. Using vague praise like this doesn’t give them a concrete idea of where they went right or when they were on the path to success. So, instead of (or in addition to) saying "good job," explain in detail what that good job entailed, getting as specific as you can. And what will help you do this is giving feedback in real-time. B. & G. recommend “describing what you experienced when [an employee's] moment of excellence caught your attention.” 

For example, say that you and someone on your staff who works in sales had a conference call with a client. And during that call, this salesperson made some excellent points that seemed to land well with the client. As soon as you get off the call, tell the salesperson exactly what they said that landed well. In addition, if the way in which what was said also impressed you, pass that along too. Again, the reason to get specific is not to make an employee feel good but to give her an idea of when she’s on the right track and how exactly she’s performing well. That way, she can replicate that success and build on it. According to B. & G., studies show that weaknesses don’t turn into strengths, but strengths can be made stronger. 

Of course, there’s a time and place for not-so-rosy feedback. But how you go about giving critical feedback is crucial. “In the example of communication skills,” according to B. & G., “you can always say: here’s where I lost you. You can’t say: speak like this, even if it’s removing a liability.” In other words, get specific; it’s the only way to help your team member. A “good job” and a “poor job” will amount to the same thing: no progress. 

A final note on this point (and maybe something to commit to memory): B. & G. recommend that managers “stop thinking of ‘good job’ as the end of the conversation and start thinking of it as the beginning of a conversation … the beauty is what comes after that.” 

3. Not speaking about your own perception.

B. & G. strongly believe that most numerical performance reviews are ineffective and inaccurate, filled with human error. And so, once-a-year and 360-degree performance reviews that include various ratings and figures, judging employees in various categories, are, at best, useless, and, at worst, killing productivity and squashing success. 

Here’s B. & G. on why these types of reviews are problematic: “Study after study [shows] that people don’t have the objectivity to hold in their heads a stable definition of an abstract quality, such as business acumen or assertiveness, and then accurately evaluate someone else on it. Our evaluations are deeply colored by our own understanding of what we’re rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases.” 

And so, the way to fight against this inability, leniency, and bias—and the only way to get at the truth of someone’s performance—is to focus on your personal experience and reaction to someone’s work. This was alluded to above in the conference call example, and here’s B. & G. expanding on it: "While simple praise isn’t a bad thing, you are by no means the authority on what objectively good performance is, and instinctively [an employee] knows this … There’s nothing more believable and more authoritative than sharing what you saw from her and how it made you feel. Use phrases such as ‘This is how that came across for me,’ or ‘This is what that made me think,’ or even just ‘Did you see what you did there?’ Those are your reactions—they are your truth—and when you relay them in specific detail, you aren’t judging or rating or fixing her; you’re simply reflecting to her the unique ‘dent’ she just made in the world, as seen through your eyes.” 

B. & G. note that the reason this type of feedback lands so well with employees is because it’s not a judgment and doesn’t have a number attached to it. Which, they say, makes it “at once more humble and more powerful.” 

As for what B. & G. recommend companies do when it comes to improving their performance review systems, above all else B. & G. urge leaders not to ignore their employees. B. & G. strongly support frequent feedback, as opposed to the old once-a-year performance review system. And they’re optimistic that reviews are moving in the right direction, saying that the “constant always-on sort of feedback movement we’re in the middle of now is trying to fix [the old system] by giving people more ongoing attention.”