Feedback; Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Forward, I eventually stopped using the ‘smelly sandwich’ approach to feedback after picking up that some team members would only hear ‘the bread’ or the good feedback, and other’s, who were naturally more self-critical, only heard the constructive feedback.

What matters here is that I tried an approach and adapted it to work for me and my team. If you leave with one message let it be that one. It’s best to try than not to do anything just because it’s makes you uncomfortable. 5 years on and I can still get uncomfortable delivering some feedback, it doesn’t necessarily go away, so get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I recently interviewed Ross Allmark, Head of Ticketing at music start-up DICE, for our OverTime Podcast series. Ross shared his experience when he received some hard to hear feedback from his team. You can listen to Ross's story here.

This article was originally featured on Entrepreneur’s Handbook.

When I started leading a team within a small business, one of the first steps in my onboarding process was to implement performance reviews. There had been a lack of structure, and the majority of my team had never received a review — the last one had been conducted eight years ago. Shocking! When I looked into the process that was in place, I was shocked to see that the small business had adopted a very corporate process. It was a highly structured set of feedback forms, full of ratings, and questions. None of it seemed authentic, or most importantly, personal. This bothered me. It also bothered me that it was an annual review. That has never made sense to me, how can a manager or employee go a whole year to discover they are underperforming?

This philosophy is still pretty common, and as you’ll see in this Forbes article, there are more than enough studies to show that annual performance reviews just don’t serve the purpose.

So what did I do to get more personal with my team and to ensure we were all on the same page?

First, I started giving on-the-spot feedback, I encouraged them to give me feedback, and I used the one-on-one time for performance reviews to do something a bit different. Here’s how:

Giving on-the-spot feedback was probably one of the most uncomfortable things I had to do, but the results made it all worth it. I also got used to it. Always try to give feedback within the week it happens. I learnt this the hard way. I travelled a lot, and once gave some feedback through email. Never do this. Ever. As much as I tried to set the right tone, you can’t control how someone will interpret an email. If they’re having a bad day, it will automatically be taken the wrong way. So since that incident, I will always do it in person.

When I explained to one of my friends I was considering delivering on the spot feedback they responded with “totally, give them a sh*t sandwich.” Say what?! They explained that a useful approach is to open with praise, share the feedback, and close with more praise.

So it went something like this…

“Adam, loved the work you did for the Smith Project. Your creative side shone through! I noticed there was some poor attention to detail, which led to slowing down the process. Would you be able to take extra care with this in future? I really value your work and would hate for it to be branded poorly over something so minimal. How does that sound? Let me know is there anything you need me to do to support you in this.”

After delivering a couple of “smelly sandwiches”, I was shocked to discover that my team was REALLY thankful for my feedback.

Then I had them flip it on me. I explained in a team meeting that I encourage their feedback. The fact that I was “manager” (a term I hated using) didn’t mean I had all the answers, and if they felt we were going down a path that didn’t make sense, to please let me know, instead of watching us hit a proverbial iceberg.

This took some time, but it eventually started to work. I soon got some great golden nuggets to things I had been missing. What helped was that whenever I received some feedback, I would do my best to act on it, and if I couldn’t, I would let them know that I tried, and why I wasn’t able to.

I respected their feedback, and they respected mine.

Then it came time to do the dreaded “performance review”

I didn’t have enough clout to totally trash the old school process, but I did what I could and added a twist. We both compared and contrasted our results (so I could deliver to upper management if requested). There were no big surprises there, so we took the rest of the time to talk about:

1) The vision and strategy of the business and how their role played a part.

2) The areas I would like to see them develop.

3) How could I support them in their development (personal or professional).

Since we were a small business, I did have the ability to create cross-functional teams. I asked each team member if there were any areas outside of their day-to-day that had ever peaked their interest. I explained that I would be happy to pull them into projects so they could get a taste and see if it was for them. It was a win/win. I had a veteran recruiter become my sales team all-star and who eventually trained the whole team on how to conduct an effective sales call. It gave me so much fulfilment to see my teammates grow and watch the energy rise.

As leaders, I think it’s imperative for us to look at both the how, and why, we do things. Starting with the end in mind, (i.e., what do I need to get out of a performance review) and work backwards to develop the best actions to achieve the end results. I can safely say that constant on the spot feedback increased my team’s productivity much more than an annual review ever did.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo because that’s exactly what we as leaders are here to do.

G 🤘

+ Listen to the OverTime podcast to get experiential leadership lessons from seasoned managers.