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8 tips for making performance feedback brain-friendly

January 13th 2021 | By Charlie Kneen

Regular, honest feedback is the foundation of performance management, and a common feature of high performing, motivated teams. Employees also crave regular feedback but unfortunately managers often put it off, or are unclear when they give it.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Giving constructive feedback isn’t always easy, even for the most experienced manager. It can be uncomfortable for the person giving it, as well as the person receiving it.

This is because our brains respond to criticism as a threat, and this strong emotional response impairs cognitive function and decision making.

Nine in 10 employees would prefer their manager to address mistakes and development opportunities in real-time.

67 per cent of managers remove negative feedback from employee evaluations because too much time has passed since the incident occurred.

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If you’re giving feedback, you need to be aware and adjust your approach so your observations are received and acted upon, rather than dismissed as criticism. Here are some of the things we routinely recommend managers do to make performance feedback more effective and ‘brain-friendly’.

1. Start with a deep level of empathy

Put your frustrations aside and make sure your feedback is coming from the right place. The only good reason to give someone developmental feedback is to help them improve. Your colleague may need space to reflect on what you’ve said, so be prepared to give it.

2. Keep it private

For some, even praise is better delivered in a private meeting. Some people simply don’t like being the centre of attention. By moving the location to a more informal area, you can remove some of the underlying pressure. Don’t criticise publicly – ever.

3. Consider rapport and your ‘bank of trust’

Your existing relationship with a colleague is an important consideration when giving feedback. If this is the first time you’re giving feedback to someone, it might help to seek advice from someone who knows them better about the best way to approach the conversation.

Even if you do know someone well and approach the conversation with sensitivity, be mindful that any developmental feedback will draw on your ‘bank of trust’ with a person. Someone who trusts you is less likely to perceive well-meaning feedback as a threat, making it more likely the message will hit home.

4. Balance praise with developmental feedback

Praise is one of the best ways to make deposits to your ‘bank of trust’ with another person. Aiming to balance constructive criticism with recognition helps to establish a foundation for talking honestly and openly about mistakes.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have something positive to say every time you give developmental feedback, of course. If you’re a manager speaking to a direct report, its important you find opportunities to tell someone what they have done well in their work. This will help to reinforce the right kinds of behaviour, help with motivation, as well as improve trust.

5. Make it timely

It’s much better to provide feedback very soon after an incident. Don’t keep waiting for ‘the right time’. If you’ve waited for a week, then the moment has almost definitely passed.

“Part of the reason [feedback] conversations take too long is we wait too long to have them,”

Shari Harley, Candid Culture

Business guru Shari Harley recommends having 2-minute conversations with colleagues about what went well and what could improve every time you meet with a person.

Why? The longer you leave the conversation, the harder it will be for your colleague to recall the specifics and this will make it harder for them to connect your observations to their behaviour.

6. Be specific and direct

Your team can’t read your mind. If you’re prone to dropping hints or expect people to read between the lines, then you probably need to take a different approach. Vague feedback leaves room for misinterpretation and confusion. Worse, if they are left guessing what the problem is, they may stop doing things they’re doing well. Be direct and specific about what you observed and use examples to help them build a clear picture of the situation.

7. Focus on performance, not personality

Focus on behaviours (what they did) rather than on their personality traits or attributes (what they’re like). It’s also useful to focus on the impact of behaviours, whether that’s on people or the organisation they work for. Provide specific examples you’ve observed where you can describe the impact it has. Avoid anything that might be interpreted as blaming or judging.

Consider these two examples from and think about what type of feedback you would like to receive.

Example 1: “Your arrogance is causing a problem.”

Example 2: “When you interrupt me in front of a client it causes a problem.”

The better approach to feedback is in example 2 because it’s focused on the person’s behaviour, whereas example 1 takes a jab at the person’s character, which will be taken personally.

8. Keep it short

If you give feedback regularly, you can keep it brief. This means your team member can better process what you’re saying without feeling overwhelmed.

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