Feedback With Heart: A Performance Review Conversation

Guest post contributed by Adam Winstead, VP, HR & Operations

Recently, I had a very honest discussion with one of our future leaders at GS&F. He described the tension he feels between our culture and the difficult decisions we must make as leaders and as coaches. He was anguishing over the paradox between being a friend and delivering tough news to a team member during a performance review. This is a conversation I have from time to time with members of our team, and frankly it’s one of my favorite types of discussions. It’s assessment season at GS&F, so this topic is top of mind for lots of our leaders.

Most people tend to come to my office (in this case, we chatted over Zoom) well prepared for a purposeful discussion to get in and out quickly. Some come with notes or an agenda, and some shift nervously in their chair. So it’s a treat when I can get to a place with someone where their guard drops and they are just themselves, sharing what’s on their heart and mind.

The individual above was being vulnerable in his commentary about our friendly culture and the contradiction that exists when communicating tough news, firm feedback or, in rare cases, enacting some type of disciplinary action. How can a friend do that to someone? And more importantly, how should a manager or leader do this while upholding our culture? He was genuinely struggling with it. And I completely get that.

In these moments, I almost always point to Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing your Humanity. In this book, author Kim Scott describes the balance every leader must strike between leading with heart and getting the best performance out of your team. She labels this dichotomy as “caring personally” and “challenging directly.”

At GS&F, we’re lucky to have a management team with big hearts. And sometimes that can keep us from delivering critical feedback in a candid and meaningful way (Scott calls this “ruinous empathy”). When I dig into this with our team the barrier is cited as “not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings,” or they’re worried that by delivering this feedback someone might retaliate by leaving the agency or simply stop caring.

But top performers crave real feedback, even if it stings. They want to hear the tough stuff because they’re striving to be great. There’s a misconception among busy managers that it’s okay to phone in improvement feedback for their top performers because, well, there’s not much feedback to give them. After all, aren’t they great? This is a cop-out. And you’ve just lost a connection point with your employee.

You must challenge directly or, in our environment, “coach like a champion.” You must deliver the tough news. Coddling never helps anyone. And if you are avoiding direct feedback to a struggling employee, you are hurting those around them.

Here’s the sweet spot, though. When you balance heart, empathy and care with direct, honest feedback to help someone improve, you create a space for listening and understanding instead of fear or entitlement. You create psychological safety.

The way we talk about friendship has changed over the years. GS&F was founded on the idea of doing great work with your friends. People you want to spend time with. Today, that sentiment holds true, but we talk about friendship in more direct terms. You’ll hear me say, “A great friend is someone who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.” A good friend isn’t going to let you make excuses; they will push you to be your best. And they will walk arm-in-arm with you while doing it. This sentiment and the tangible examples of it bring out the best in each of us.

In the meantime, don’t hesitate to show up to a performance review with some critical coaching and a big heart. Trust me on this. Your team will appreciate the example of honesty and connection!

P.S. If you haven’t read Radical Candor, do yourself a favor and read it during quarantine. I buy it by the case and distribute it to every manager or future leader for our organization. It’s just that good.

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