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Feedback: Its All Personal and Why That Matters

The end of the year can be such a joyous time of year. Christmas, Hanukah, New Year's Eve parties and ... the annual employee performance review. Hmmm. If you're like most people, that last one doesn't quite make the list.
The end of the year can be such a joyous time of year. Christmas, Hanukah, New Year's Eve parties and ... the annual employee performance review. Hmmm. If you're like most people, that last one doesn't quite make the list.

There aren't many scheduled professional activities that can generate such an array of feelings for managers and employees alike. Anxiety, excitement, hope, disappointment, indifference, resentment, and gratitude, among others. Regardless of how one feels prior to and after receiving feedback, one thing is certain: Feedback is always personal.

Conventional wisdom and typical management training try to remove the personal aspect of feedback, even encouraging us to not take feedback personally. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, clearly, there is a difference between critiquing the activity and critiquing the person. I get that. Letting someone know that his continued tardiness is negatively impacting the performance of the team is very different than calling him a 'belligerent and irresponsible hiring mistake!'

When we praise our employees for doing outstanding work, we hope they feel good about the work they're doing and themselves as a person. In that sense, we don't mind that they take that feedback personally.

When we encourage them to take 'ownership' of their projects or tasks, we want them to care about what they're doing, to take pride in their work. Looking at your own life, think about the things you're most committed to, the things you take 'ownership' of. How successful have you been in not taking the results of that commitment personally?

Yet, when we're in a position to inform someone that his behavior did not meet our expectations in some way, we encourage him to not take it personally. If he cares about his job at all, he will. If he doesn't care at all, this would be a termination conversation, not a feedback session.

Hearing that we haven't lived up to someone's expectations, that somehow our thoughts and actions didn't measure up, immediately triggers a fear within us. Very simply, it's this idea that we're not good enough. Trust me, even your most confident, high-performing employees have this fear within them.

I wonder what would be different if managers knew that their feedback was going to be taken personally. Would they take more time to prepare before sitting with that employee? Would they use a different choice of words while providing feedback? Would they acknowledge their own shortcomings and ask where they can improve in order to help their employees improve? Would they follow up and follow through on the decided-upon action plan moving forward?

There's so much more to feedback training than simply teaching managers the antiquated and ineffective 'good-bad-good' framework of delivering feedback. We need to do a better job of helping them recognize just how personal feedback is, and why their preparation, delivery, and follow up are crucial to the success of their employees.

We need to ensure that the manager hasn't already had upper management sign off on the review prior to having the conversation with the employee. It's no longer a conversation in that case. It's a verdict.

We need to get managers and employees to accept that they contributed to the results they created, good and bad. This is what responsibility is all about.

We need to recognize that feedback sessions are conversations, yes, but a conversation where the recipient (usually the one without the authority) feels completely vulnerable.

We need to teach both parties how to engage with a lens of curiosity, which helps minimize the defensive responses which can often derail the conversation.

We need to teach managers how to handle an employee's offensive replies in a non-defensive manner.

Ultimately, we need to help managers understand that the relationship they have with their employees is the single biggest determinant as to whether that individual and the company will thrive.

Done well, the performance review is an opportunity for the manager and the employee to strengthen their bond, to commit to working on themselves individually and together, to continue to strive toward desired results.

It's time we took it personally.

Written by:

Pete Smith who serves on the Programs Committee and Board of Directors for HR Alliance.

Pete Smith is the President of SmithImpact, a personal and professional development company based in Arlington, VA. A former operations executive, Pete works with managers of all levels on how to become leadership rockstars. Focusing on young professionals, Pete's Expect to Win program is one of the most unique and effective leader development programs for mid-level managers and high performing employees.
To find out more about Pete, visit and request a complimentary download on 'The #1 Question That Will Determine Your Significance in This World'


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