Performance feedback you can actually use

Jess Davis | 04/24/2019

I recently received a structured performance review from a trusted co-worker. The online form asked my peer to rate my most recent 90 days of performance in seven categories, with a rating scale that went from “How did you even get this job?” to “You go, girl.”

While the returned survey indicated I had performed exceptionally well in all areas, my reviewer didn’t leave any comments. As I looked over all of that year’s formal survey evaluations I’d gotten from co-workers, I realized that even when I was lucky enough to get a comment, it was something fluffy and, ultimately, unhelpful. Most of the comments were along the lines of: “She’s a pleasure to work with,” “I enjoy our discussions. Makeup game strong,” or the dreaded, “Keep up the great work.” Sure, those comments gave me a boost … for all of three seconds.

I have always made it my mission to grow. I know I’m not perfect — just like every other person — but the way these online reviews were used made it difficult to receive any constructive criticism. I am a hard worker (and heck yes, my makeup game is strong), but these responses didn’t go deeper than that; they only set me up for a quick ego boost, and then left me without direction as to exactly where I could improve or where I excelled.

I’m not asking for a miracle ­— I know that no performance management tool is going to be perfect. I’ve worked with half a dozen of them in my human resources career: from carbon copy forms, to Word templates, to free-form text summaries that compiled every comment said about the recipient during the year. Currently, we use a fancy online tool that forgoes ratings in favor of standardized survey questions for every employee globally, then churns out data about how well I’m doing compared with my peers.

I want employers and employees alike to realize that any tool is just that — a tool. Survey tools have a limited ability to accurately evaluate and identify an employee’s unique strengths, skills and creativity.

The bottom line is that data without context is not as useful as it could be.

At our studio, we’ve recognized this, which is why we encourage managers and employees to engage in high-quality career conversations several times a year.

Direct feedback allows you to better identify and home in on the skills that provide the highest value to your team and your employer. Ultimately, getting crystal clear on your value — or, the reason your employer keeps putting money in your bank account — is critical to your job success and satisfaction.

Here are some ideas on getting useful feedback and finding your value.

Ask peers for feedback on:

  • Specific projects
  • Verbal and written communication
  • Presentation skills
  • Performance during difficult meetings or calls
  • Progress on personal goals you’ve defined for yourself Before asking, consider:
  • Their depth of experience in the skills you’re interested in improving
  • Their time expenditure
  • How to structure questions to draw out the feedback you need (For example, rather than asking, “How did I do during that meeting?” ask, “What additional actions could I have taken in that situation that you feel would have improved the outcome?”)

Ask your feedback provider to outline:

  • The situation and behaviors they observed
  • What impact your behavior had on the situation
  • Alternatives they would suggest for next time, or a similar situation, that would improve the outcome

Here are a few more tips for a great feedback chat:

  • Be open and provide a comfortable space to talk, physically and emotionally
  • Ask your provider for clarity; repeat back what you’ve heard to be sure you understand their points
  • Take careful notes
  • Thank your feedback provider; when you are gracious, your ability to effectively receive the feedback will improve automatically
  • Pause and reflect after the meeting
  • Summarize your strongest skills and where you’re adding the most value to the team
  • Identify which skills need work
  • Consider the actions, behavior, education or additional resources you need to grow from this feedback
  • Determine goal progress checkpoints and continue to follow up

So, if you’ve also been frustrated by a lack of critical feedback and bored with getting high marks in ambiguous performance categories, consider following my lead. Ask those same “formal” feedback providers out for coffee and a transparent conversation. Listen, be gracious, make a commitment to act, and return the favor one day. You’ll have a deeper working relationship, and a career partnership where you both can grow and improve together.

Photo taken by Matt Lewis