Three tips to give effective performance improvement feedback

First posted on LinkedIn April 15, 2016

Let’s start by busting a commonly held myth.  Here is how NOT to give effective performance improvement feedback:

  1. Butter them up – find some platitudes or feedback on what is going well
  2. Give the ’difficult’ message
  3. Say “But…” and then reinforce the positives.

Let me be clear… this method of ‘sandwiching’ developmental feedback between two piece of good news DOES NOT WORK!

In a study at the University of Chicago, behavioural science professor Ayelet Fishbach conducted a simulation in which one half of a class gave negative feedback to the other half.  The half receiving feedback thought they were doing great.

Why did they walk away with a positive impression of their performance when the students giving feedback set out to let their them know that their performance was unsatisfactory?

“Negative feedback is often buried and not very specific,” according to Fishbach.

According to Kurt Lewin in his seminal work undertaken in the 1940s, effecting change is like an ice cube: you unfreeze it, change its shape, then re-freeze it to lock in the change.  Change guru Ed Schein suggests there are three critical components to the unfreezing process:

  1. Disconfirm worldview
  2. Create a level of guilt or anxiety
  3. Provide a psychological safety net.

As an example, one of my team members failed to deliver a report on time and even when I followed this up with her, it was subsequently not written to the required quality.  I looked her in the eye and explained clearly and succinctly what the likely outcomes would be.  I reinforced it was her responsibility to ensure those outcomes were positive (step 1).  After a little resistance and further discussion, I could see in her eyes that she understood and felt responsible.  She was for sure a little guilty at having let me (and herself) down (Step 2).  I closed by offering her my support by way of a review of the report before it was finalised (Step 3).

So, when it comes to giving difficult performance management messages, remember Ed Schein’s advice.  Here’s some tips from me:

Step 1: Disconfirm worldview
  • Do you have the authority and leverage to be able to tell people their current performance is below par, that it is not meeting its objectives and that change is needed?
  • Have you instilled a clear view of the outcome (i.e. changed behaviour) that is sought, and over what time-frames?
Step 2: Create a level of guilt or anxiety
  • In disconfirming the worldview, are you able to pierce through the person’s current perception of themselves that has created a defence against criticism and locked them into their current behaviour?
  • Doing this demonstrates there is guilt and anxiety through the feedback you have given, and crucially that this anxiety is located around the specific area of behaviour that is problematic.
Step 3: Provide psychological safety net
  • How can you offer support to the other person so that they feel safe in working on changing their behaviour?
  • What do they need from you in order to be able to work on it?
  • Be explicit about how you will both work on this together and check progress together within the agreed overall timeframe for change.


Jeremy J Lewis