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How to Give Feedback to Your Top Performers

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“Chris, you’re scaring me.”

This is one of the most useful pieces of feedback I received in my career.

I was listening to my HR Business Partner tell me her story when she suddenly stopped mid-sentence and told me that I was scaring her.

What?? Meee????

From my perspective, I was just listening intently and taking everything in. In doing so, I was merely wearing my “listening face.”

But to her, I could win a poker championship. She said she had no idea how I was receiving her information or what I was thinking. She could not read me at all. It freaked her out.

That’s when I learned that I needed to give at least a few visual cues every so often so that the person who was talking to me knew I was following along and not secretly planning a nefarious scheme to kill her in the parking lot.

This one piece of feedback stayed with me throughout my career (thank you, Carol!)

What Does This Mean to You?

The right feedback from anywhere can be useful, but feedback from one’s manager is especially important and valuable. But one of the top 3 complaints I hear today from my high achieving clients is that they get little to no meaningful, actionable feedback from their bosses.

You may assume that I’m hearing this from individual contributors about their first line supervisors.

Uh, nope.

I’m hearing this from Sr. Managers, Directors, and VPs about their management, including C-levels.

Useful feedback is vital to employees’ success and future growth. All employees need and deserve useful feedback, but this is especially true of top performers.

Top performers are hard-wired for achievement and they strive to continually grow and advance. Lack of feedback that can help them in that endeavor is a much bigger job dissatisfier than most managers recognize.

As a manager of high achievers, this is what you need to do:

1. Give Feedback Discussions the attention and priority they deserve.

A good feedback discussion shows that you care about the performance of your team and are committed to the success and continued development of each of your employees.

Schedule it. Do not miss or reschedule it. This should be viewed as a high priority meeting with the focused agenda of providing useful feedback and formulating a development plan with each employee. Don’t try to squeeze this discussion into a 15 minute time slot on an already packed 1:1 agenda.

Establish a planned frequency for this meeting. Decide on the cadence depending on the employee and the scope of his/her development strategy. One cadence you might try is a longer discussion scheduled annually to agree on the development strategy for the year, followed by shorter update sessions quarterly.

Feedback is important. Treat it that way.

2. Clarify the objective of the Feedback Discussion in advance.

Don’t you hate walking into a meeting and getting hit with an ambush? Yeh, your employees do too.

If this is a new process for you, be sure to tell your employees your intentions in advance. This means telling them you are glad they are on your team and you value their contributions, especially so for your top performers.

You intend to give them meaningful, actionable feedback that can help them in their work now and help expand/up-level their skills portfolio to better position them for opportunities and career advancement in the future.

Of course, you will not (and cannot) promise promotions or perfectly defined career paths. As you well know, the business environment is way too dynamic for those promises.

(Btw, the operative word here is “help.” Your employees have to do the heavy lifting to advance their own careers. But you will help them by providing useful insights and ideas for ways to improve and by championing their efforts)

This meeting is a valuable investment in your employees’ futures.

3. Make the feedback relevant and useful.

Be specific with your feedback. Provide examples and back-up data.

To make your feedback useful and actionable, make sure you are talking about behaviors which are observable and for which improvements can be recognized. Feedback like “be more confident” is not helpful.

And be sure to tie the feedback to current and future business and organizational needs.

4. Up-level the conversation. Be more strategic.

Yes, you will want to review actual performance results, what went well, what didn’t go so well. But your top performers already know what went well and what didn’t go well, so don’t stop there!

The most valuable part of the conversation for your top performers is helping them understand their strengths as perceived by those around them, their areas of improvement, and what they should focus on in their career development.

On average, only three in 10 employees strongly agree there is someone at work who encourages their development.

(Gallup, September 25, 2017)

Put a lot of thought into this in advance. Make careful observations. Solicit feedback from stakeholders and customers (with your employee’s prior agreement), and ask each employee for his own self-assessment in advance of the discussion so that you are ready to talk about areas of agreement and any discrepancies.

And here is the “secret sauce” to a great feedback discussion with your top performers: when discussing developmental areas, do it with your top performer’s career aspirations in mind also. He will appreciate your interest in his career goals and will be highly motivated to work on development plans with that in mind.

Connect your top performers’ current development needs to their longer term goals.

5. Get creative.

In your Feedback Discussion, talk with your employee about her top 2-3 strengths and 2-3 areas of improvement. What are some opportunities for her to use her strengths more in her work today? How can she leverage those strengths to further her improvement?

For example, maybe your employee’s top strength is collaboration, but an area of improvement is organization. Can she use her collaboration strength to enlist other team members to help her organize a new customer quality forum? She’ll get a better result, get great visibility, and learn more about organizing complex meetings in the process.

How can you help your top performer successfully grow in her development area? Can you provide resources for seminars and classes, professional education, or professional coaching?

Brainstorm potential opportunities in the company that can help her with her focused area of development. Be creative. Can you expand your top performer’s role? What important projects need to be done in the company that can help your top performer grow in her development area? This can be a huge win-win for the company and the employee.

Help your top performer devise a personal development plan and be sure to have scheduled follow-ups to discuss her progress.

Do it!

Regularly scheduled feedback discussions do not preclude the need for real-time acknowledgement, feedback, and coaching. But they should reinforce those daily observations and increase the quality of your feedback.

Be the boss that everyone wants to work for. Take an active interest in your employees’ growth. Put in the time and effort to provide really useful feedback for your employees’ development planning and success.

Now, go get your Feedback Discussions on your calendar!

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