Storytime: Woz's hard earned lesson (No Surprise Feedback)

If you had to give someone a performance review tomorrow, would they be surprised with what they hear? 

If yes, you aren’t doing your job as a lead. 

When it comes to performance feedback, it’s really easy to bottle it up and save it until it absolutely needs to be given. When that happens, it’s already too late. 

Leads need to strike a balance where performance conversations happen often enough that there aren’t any surprises, but not so often that reports feel like they’re under a constant state of scrutiny. It’s not easy, but it’s doable, and it’s worth it. 

The first line of this post is the mental model I’ve used to strike that balance. 

Here’s what I learned:

Say the damned thing. 

A while ago, I had a new report who was just fantastic. I saw how critical they were to our operation and really valued what they brought to the team. The problem was that a lot of other people saw something different. They saw them as abrasive, hard to work with, some even went as far to say they were disrespectful and refused to work with them again. This was a problem. After what had been years of this perception growing, it was now their brand and they were totally oblivious to it. I came to learn that this feedback was well overdue and should have been given by any of their previous leads. Sadly it wasn’t. Now it was up to me.

Think about how unfair that is for a second. How is someone ever supposed to improve when they're clueless to the issues holding them back? 

Ultimately I chose to just say the damned thing. I told them,

“People believe that you’re abrasive and hard to work with. If something doesn’t change it’s going to affect your employment here and I don’t want that to happen." 

It wasn’t easy to say, but it was the most honest and it was the right thing to do. Tiptoeing around the issue or ignoring it completely would have meant I wasn’t doing my job as a lead. 

Have their back. 

I didn’t just leave them hanging after I dropped that bombshell. I continued to say, 

“I know this isn’t who you are. I see the great work you do, the value you bring, and I know you care about the people you work with. Let’s work together to address this as it's going to help further your career.” 

I believed all that and I wanted them to know it. To their credit, they were thankful for the feedback and really wanted to work on the areas that were leading to this branding issue.

Of course, having their back didn’t end with that meeting. Now that the problem was out in the open, I was able to give consistent feedback on what I saw was working or what wasn’t. This is key. This regular feedback allowed them to course correct quickly and recognize when they were on the right track. 

Schedule time to talk about overall performance.

The consistent feedback I offered helped them know when they were doing things well and when they still needed work, but I felt like it was important to also check in on high level progress regularly. Something a little different than our usual 1:1s. 

Every 6 weeks or so we’d make a point of talking about how far things have progressed. This eliminated any of the guesswork for them. We’d both leave those meetings with clarity on where things stood in terms of performance. They didn’t need to lose sleep wondering if what they had been doing was “enough” or not. I’d tell them. 

As a leader, having difficult conversations is part of the job. Taking this approach can feel a lot more direct than how you’ve done things in the past. You’ll worry that it’s too direct. I worried it was too direct. I worried that it would impact the trust I had built with this employee. In reality, it boosted the trust they had in me. They appreciated that I cared enough to point out something that was holding them back and then support them through improvement. 

I put this mental model into practice with everyone I led.

This evolved into No Surprise Feedback:

Candor over perfection. Say the damned thing. 

Collaboration in service of reaching goals. Have their back. 

Cadence over convenience. Schedule time to talk about overall performance.   

Leaning into honesty and clarity on performance led to more trust, more progress, and more collaboration towards goals than anything I’d done before. Most importantly, it led to performance reviews with no surprises. The people you lead have a right to know how to improve. It’s a disservice to them to hide it. 

Now, when I think about helping my team, I reflect on that one question: 

If I had to give this person a review tomorrow, would they be surprised with what they hear?

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