22 Jan

“Nice work today, you’re starting to get the hang of it.” * On the surface, that sounds positive. What it doesn’t offer is any specific feedback regarding what was done well and what still needs practice or training. I might be proud of my progress and think I’m nearing the end of the learning curve. If that’s not the case, I need a map, verbal or otherwise, to let me know exactly where I stand. More specific feedback about what else there is to learn builds self-awareness.

“You’ve come a long way.” * Does this mean I was already doing well and am now exceeding expectations, or was I instead struggling, and I’m finally starting to meet expectations? If you still have a performance rating system that labels people and their performance (as an aside, we should talk about whether that’s the trajectory you want to be on for talent management), then this isn’t a subtle nuisance. Uncertainty as to how that feedback was intended can result in each party entering a performance review with misaligned expectations.

“You’re a rock star!” * Leaders say this and are almost always genuine in their admiration and appreciation. Employees, on the other hand, usually hear this as “I see you working.” While that is better than the alternative, most of us want to hear specifically what we are doing well and what our leaders value. To know how to excel and advance at work, we need explicit cues as to what our leadership recognizes and rewards. “We’ve noticed your unique ability to manage escalations with diplomacy and tact. Strong conflict management skills are rare and something we value here.” That comment doesn’t have the same implied exclamation point. Instead, it has a period that is definitive, clear, and will drive employee engagement so much faster than vague, over-enthusiastic statements.

“That was actually a good idea.” * Meaning you are pleasantly surprised and most of my ideas aren’t good? If two people have this type of confusing exchange but normally have a great relationship, they may laugh and move on. Imagine, however, that someone is concerned about coming across as confrontational or doesn’t think they are on good terms with the other person. They will be far less likely to seek clarification and more likely to fret about what the imaginary asterisk meant. They may take the worry home or talk with peers about it, turning a small comment into a larger employee relations or team dynamics issue.

Asterisks take away from the good and water down the bad. They literally mean that there is more to the story that I’m not telling you right now. Providing conditional feedback was not what you learned in Management 101.

Offer clear, specific developmental feedback, and avoid sandwiching comments. “You had three positive customer surveys this week, nice job. Now, we need to talk about your punctuality?” * Drop the asterisk and keep the comments separate.  “Bob, we need to talk about your punctuality. I’ve noticed you were late to work twice in the past week. Everyone must be on time to meet our customer service goals and ensure that the team’s workload is evenly balanced.” That is a triple period statement that establishes performance facts and expectations.

Then, a few days later, say, “Bob, you had three positive customer comments last week, specifically noting your subject matter knowledge. Congratulations!” Each of these statements as standalone feedback, allows each to carry their relevant performance management significance.

Hopefully, you can hear the imaginary asterisks in the comments you make to people. Now, be just as intentional with how you speak about others. We had a vendor recently providing a carpet estimate and suggested their top installation team. The salesperson said, “We’ll send you Doug and Jose, Doug is really good.” * As a customer, all I heard is that one of your installers isn’t very good.

While this topic was on my mind, I caught myself at home say, “You did a great job on that science test!  If only that effort carried over to Spanish…” *

When providing feedback in the workplace and at home, begin to listen for your imaginary asterisks and instead use periods and exclamation points independently for the emphasis they each deserve. This will bring clarity to your conversations, ensure consistent expectations, and allow others insight as to what you recognize and value.

Shawna Lake is the Founder of Deep End Talent Strategies, an HR consulting firm working with businesses and individuals alike. Let us know how we can help you  through our Inquiry Form.