When feedback fails

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Let’s say it’s performance review time, and you nonchalantly slip in that one of your team members, let’s call her Madison, “needs to be more professional.”

In your mind, you know exactly what this means. It’s helpful and straightforward feedback. Twenty years from, now when Madison is managing partner and she is receiving a prestigious accounting award, she will thank you from the stage for this moment. Pat on the back for you!

But once you get to that place in the review, your concise comment leads to confusion. You see it in Madison’s facial expression — her eyes grow wider, then they narrow and her eyebrows cinch slightly together. Her silent response concludes with a head tilt. If you’re not mistaken, she seems a bit crestfallen.

Madison is one of your best CPAs, and now she is shutting down.

In your mind, there are red flashing lights, and your conflict-manager-brain is shouting, “Abort! Abort! Abort!”

Words matter

The above example may be dramatic, but you see my point here. One little word without a clear and common understanding can lead to unintended consequences.

In this example, Madison has a few options for responding to this feedback. She can lean into it and ask what you mean. (But really, considering the power dynamics in a performance review, who wants to do that?). Or she can say “OK,” leave the room, and always wonder if what she is doing is meeting your threshold for professionalism. The former puts the burden on her in an uncomfortable situation. And the latter will likely lead to her becoming paranoid at best or disenfranchised at worst.

Sticking with this example, how do you define “professional?” How would your fellow CPAs define professional? What are the odds that anyone in the group has a shared common definition?

  • Does “professional” refer to attire? Does it mean wearing a jacket in client meetings? Does the color of the jacket matter?
  • Does it refer to how a person carries themselves?
  • Does it refer to communication style? Are one-word emails considered efficient or unprofessional?

One word leads to so many questions.

And this word — professional — is not alone. Without common definitions and clear expectations, loads of words can come across as ambiguous, thus undermining the feedback that you are trying to deliver.

Take these examples

In a recent workshop at a public accounting firm, I asked the group to jot down the least helpful feedback that they had received from a manager, partner or another supervisor. Here are some of the responses:

  • “You ask too many questions.”
  • “You could be more professional.”
  • “Don’t be too communicative.”
  • “You need to be more competitive.”
  • “Talk less.”
  • “You’re too quiet.”
  • “Improve the quality of your work.”

Another common area of feedback that can be confusing has to do with time. Like telling another team member he is often late. What does “late: mean in your office? Five minutes after the office opens? Ten minutes? Thirty minutes? What defines “often” late? Again, everyone’s response to this question will likely be different.

Tips for better reviews

Here are a few pieces of advice that I offer my clients who want to deliver clear and meaningful feedback to team members.

1. Avoid labels. Instead, provide specific details about what you observe and talk through possible solutions.

2. Don’t avoid conflict and let things build up. Saving your critique for a semi-annual formal review is not good for you or your team. If it is worthy of being in a written review, it should be talked about before the formal process. Formal reviews are not a time for surprises.
3. Clearly define and set expectations. Help ensure your team understands the norms of the company and your clients. Forcing a team member to figure out the unwritten rules is inefficient and unfair.
4. On delivering feedback from others… . Be sure it’s valuable and that you understand it. Saying, “Someone on the team thinks you’re unprofessional, but I don’t know why,” will not help the person being reviewed, nor will it promote team cohesion. Instead have a conversation involving both parties to find clarity, and maybe even a resolution, before delivering a third-party message.
5. Check your biases. As a leader you should have expectations for your team. However, a little flexibility can go a long way when building morale. This can apply to any number of topics from apparel choices to communication styles. Outside of our balance sheets, there can be more than one right way to do things. Your team will appreciate having some space to for self-expression.

If you remember to set expectations, give examples and execute on delivering feedback routinely, you’ll be on your way to better developing the next generation of professionals.

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