How to Give Feedback to Top Performers

How to Give Feedback to Top Performers.

A common trap for managers is to spend most of your time trying to improve the performance of the stragglers in your team. It’s counter-intuitive, but you will gain more management leverage and better long-term results by spending most of your time coaching your “rock stars”, your A-Players.

What is an A-Player?

I define an A-Player as a person who consistently:

  1. achieves the agreed standard for RESULTS in their role, and
  2. demonstrates BEHAVIORS aligned to the Core Values.

In essence, there are 2 dimensions to an employee’s performance. RESULTS + BEHAVIORS. Both requirements must be met consistently to be considered an A-Player.

Giving feedback is the manager’s job.

Think about the best managers, best teachers, or the best coaches you’ve had in your life. Chances are, they were the ones who confronted you whenever they observed your performance or behavior being below the standard they believed you were capable of.

You may not have liked what they said at the time, but thinking back, it was exactly what you needed to hear. Yes, they were tough on you, but you knew they had your best interests at heart. They genuinely cared about your growth and development. They changed your life for the better.

If you are the team manager, it’s your job to fulfill that coaching role in the lives of the people you manage. Yes, critiquing performance can cause anxiety for both parties. Sometimes critiquing an A-Player can be harder than critiquing a poor performer, because A-Players can get offended at the slightest hint that they’re not doing their best.

One of the most powerful tools in the manager’s arsenal is a recurring weekly 1 on 1 meeting with each of your team members to give them feedback on their performance. Everyone has room for improvement, and top managers use this systemized approach to coach and support everyone on the team to perform to his or her full potential.

Preparation and research:

Review the A-Player’s performance.

Software dashboards can bring the concept of radical transparency to an organization. These tools make Metrics, Projects, and Tasks visible, providing both parties with a tangible history of work that has been done. You can clearly see which people are performing well, and who needs coaching and support.

Review the A-Player’s behaviors.

Make a note of specific instances when you observed behaviors that you would like to discuss with the A-Player. It could be to commend them for “living the Core Values”, or to discuss instances where you believe they fell short of the desired behaviors.

Also, consider whether they may be paying a high price to be an A-Player. Are they taking care of their health and well-being?

Giving feedback to A-Players:

Start by thanking the A-Player for their good work.

Don’t assume your A-Players know how well they are doing or how much you value them. Most managers do not praise their people frequently enough.

Start by discussing specific examples of where Metric or Project performance standards have been exceeded (“in the green”), or where Core Values behaviors have been witnessed, and genuinely thank them. Critique is more easily received if preceded by a genuine appreciation for their good work.

Studies show companies who effectively praise and recognize their staff are more profitable. In terms of frequency, Gallup research suggests that you look for opportunities to praise each of your team members for doing something right at least once per week if you want to increase employee engagement and motivation.

Discuss any performance shortfalls.

Point out the tangible evidence of performance shortfalls as evidenced by your software dashboard – whether it is Metrics that are below the agreed performance threshold, or Projects and Tasks that are overdue (“in the red”).

Incorrect: “You’re not working hard enough Bob”

Better: “I see your customer appointments Metric was “in the red” last week. This is the 2nd week in a row. What’s happening here, Bob?

Discuss any behavioral shortfalls.

Describe the specific instances where you feel behavioral improvement is required. Stick to the facts. Describe the consequences of their behavior and how you feel about it. Don’t label or judge the person. Don’t assume you understand the intent behind their actions. If you are angry, wait until you have your emotions in check. Calmly assume the role of a “supportive coach”. Remember, your #1 job as a manager is to coach and support your team members to perform to their full potential.

Incorrect: “You disrespected Suzy in that meeting Bob”

Better: “Hey Bob, I observed you typing on your phone on 3 separate occasions during Suzy’s training session today. I got the feeling that you weren’t interested in what she had to say. What’s happening here, Bob?

You want your description of the facts to be so accurate that the only option Bob has is to agree with the facts, and then provide his interpretation of what happened.

The 3 question coaching sequence I use is always some variant of:

1. “What’s happening here?”

Listen to understand. There may be a valid reason for performance or behavior shortfalls.

2. “What 1 thing can we do this week to improve this?”

Let Bob come up with solutions first. Then suggest others. Work together to come up with at least one tangible action, and capture it as a Task. Follow up next week to make sure the Task(s) got done, and assess the impact on performance.

3. “What support do you need?”

Make it clear that you are on Bob’s side and that your role is to support your team members to be successful. Don’t assume that providing feedback is a one-time event. You must follow up to ensure the agreed actions have been implemented, and keep providing feedback until a sustainable long-term change has taken place.

Motivating A-Players: It’s not about the money!

We all want to make a fair income for what we do. That means fair when compared with colleagues, and in line with the level of remuneration someone in the industry should reasonably expect to receive for their responsibilities and performance (plus or minus 10%). If we don’t think that we’re paid fairly, we get de-motivated and performance suffers.

Money is what psychologist Frederick Herzberg called a “hygiene factor”. A hygiene factor, like pay, can satisfy you, but it won’t motivate you. You have to have enough money to be satisfied and, if you don’t, then you’re dissatisfied or de-motivated.

Beyond meeting “fair” industry remuneration, providing additional money to a person loses its power to motivate. Once people believe their remuneration is “fair” and their basic income needs are met, what motivates A-Players is interesting and challenging work. They want to accomplish important things, so give them high-profile assignments. They relish handling tough projects and making important decisions.

A-Players love to learn and develop. They love training courses and conferences. And no one will get more out of quality coaching than your A-Players.

Help the A-Player achieve their personal goals.

Ask them questions like, “What do you want to be better at?” “What are you interested in learning” “What responsibilities would you like to take on to further your career?” This helps you and the A-Player to align their personal goals with those of the organization in order to keep them stimulated and hopefully retain them for the long-term.

Show the A-Player you value their opinion.

Ask questions like, “What can I do better to support you?” “What do you think is the most important thing our company needs to do to improve?” “What’s your opinion on this (issue)?” “If it were up to you to decide, what would you do?”

Frequency is key.

Don’t make the mistake I made early in my management career, where I thought I was “rewarding” my A-Players by leaving them alone, and I spent most of my time trying to fix the poor performers. The result was my A-Players did not get enough of my time or attention and felt that I did not care about them. Of course, I cared about them, but with the benefit of hindsight, I realize now that neglecting them was a poor way of showing it!

Don’t wait until you see the need to provide some constructive feedback. The higher the performer, the more frequently you should be providing feedback. A major key to business success depends on attracting, retaining, and growing your A-Players. It is a wise investment of your time to meet 1 on 1 every week with everyone on your team, but most especially your A-Players.


Until next time…