What do you want to hear?

I think I might be on the cusp of the next great employee feedback mechanism for leadership.  I’ve been thinking about this concept for a long while. You see, for years I’ve had the opportunity to test out my various theories on employee feedback.  I’ve watched my own feedback theories change over the years, but they always were grounded in people truly want feedback about their performance.

That is mostly true.  People do want feedback about their performance.

Here is what also is true:

1. People want feedback about what they’ve done well.

2. People don’t want critical feedback. Someone asking you for critical feedback is really just testing you to see if you are either:

 1. Upset with them for how bad they did

2. Just seeing if you have the guts to them how bad they did

3. People really just want you to tell everyone else how great you think they are.

I think a better, more effective, way of delivering feedback to employees should start with this one question:

“What do you want to hear about your performance?”

At this point the employee will say stuff like, “I just want to hear how well I did”, or “Tell me that you appreciated my work”, or “Tell me I’m the best employee you have”.  This will then drive the conversation appropriately and keep everyone fully engaged.  “Alright, Timmy, you are doing really well. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you do. You are the best employee I have.”

Timmy leaves feeling great and satisfied.  You don’t have to deal with someone losing their mind about how they are really performing. Everyone goes back to work with minimal disruption.

Yeah, I know what you really wanted to say was, “Timmy, you can do better. While I appreciate the work you do, I wish you would actually do more of it. You are like most employees hear, nothing special, but you could be.”

How does that conversation end?  Timmy is pissed. He creates a scene.  He usually ends up disrupting the work environment and kills productivity. He might even go out and find another job with someone else.

Is that what you wanted? Probably not.

So, make it easier on yourself.  Just remember to start every feedback conversation out with that one question: What do you want to hear?  They’ll tell you. They’ll be happier. You’ll be happier. Everyone can get back to work.

Feedback is is the leadership sucker test.  No one really wants to hear what you think about them.

8 thoughts on “What do you want to hear?

  1. I have to respectfully disagree – while most of us as human beings may have gut negative reactions to criticism, true feedback if done well can be very useful. I know one of my employees especially pushes me to give her meaningful feedback, she’s unhappy with me if all I’m saying is “you’re doing great” – okay, but what else can I do?
    Feedback done well is a powerful tool – I learned a technique from InsideOut Coaching several years ago that has stood me in good stead. You ask the person to answer three questions first – they answer, not you: What’s working? Where are you getting stuck? What might you do different in the future? Then as the manager, after they have answered, you can fill in on those same three questions – so agree this is working, here’s some more I think is working; here’s some additional thoughts on where you’re getting stuck; and suggestions for how to operate differently. I use it in performance discussions, performance reviews, and monthly one-on-one check-ins. It keeps our conversation focused, and the main ball is in their court. So they get meaningful feedback, but in a way that allows them to better accept/act on it than if I just “dumped” on them about where I felt they were falling short.
    My two cents…

    • Karen,

      Love your comments!

      “Done well” – really, how many people do this well? Almost none. It’s always a train wreck. That’s why we have jobs in HR, no one can give feedback ‘well’. So, we clean up the mess.

      Fat and happy. That’s how I want to live. 😉


  2. Tim: If you don’t already know I really like your stuff and spread a lot of things you write on LinkedIn and refer to it in my blog. I think you blew it this time. You may make people feel good by giving them the feedback they want to hear but you don’t make them any better. You are supporting mediocrity.

    • Mel,

      First, thank you! Means a lot coming from you.

      Second, I probably blow it all the time. Here’s the deal. If someone sucks, fire them. Having a leader give them critical feedback is most likely going to do nothing to change them. They’re adult learners. They are who they are.

      Third, what’s wrong with average? Most of our employees are average. If me blowing hot air up their butt keeps them average and everyone is happy, don’t I win.

      My great performers don’t need my critical feedback, their great. My worse performers won’t accept my critical feedback they need to be fired. My average performers will be thrown off their average game.

      Critical feedback is a concept we made up to make leaders feel they can actually have an impact.

      But, I might be wrong.


  3. Tim, I like the idea of starting with a positive. But, if Timmy isn’t meeting your expectation (based on reading what you wanted to say), how does telling him what he wants to hear and getting him quickly and smoothly back to under-performing help anyone? Aren’t you just punting to a future date?

    Today isn’t April 1st, is it?

  4. What a GREAT thought! Ask people what they want to hear. It sounds so simple- but can be overlooked. People aren’t willing to listen if you’re not telling them what they want to hear.

    I think what’s missing here is where you drive that conversation after you hear what they want you to tell them. People want to improve and become better at what they do- otherwise they would become bored and disengaged. Have a real discussion of what they’ve done that has been great- and also what they can do to become even better.

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