Validation — The missing piece to employee feedback

Sam Altman posted an amazing piece on what successful startups face 12–24 months in. I wanted to build on that by discussing validation — the missing piece to performance management and more specifically, employee feedback.

As a company scales, it will implement some type of management framework designed to facilitate communication throughout the company (i.e. communication architecture) and improve employee performance (i.e. performance management). The framework is executed by the managers within the company, and these individuals are critical to the success of the company because their most important role is to elicit peak performance from their direct reports. And as Andy Grove states in “High Output Management,” (my favorite management book) the manager has two ways to tackle this challenge: training and motivating.

Feedback is a powerful driver of behavior because it hits on both training and motivating. Feedback can reinforce what is being done well and also highlight what needs to be improved. And when done well, feedback will inspire and train the employee to improve and achieve peak performance. As a result, the art of providing feedback is the most important skill to learn as a manager.

What’s often overlooked is that providing the feedback is only half the battle. Most management advice is focused on providing clear, succinct feedback yet fails to highlight the most important part: providing the employee positive reinforcement and validating improvements in behavior after providing the feedback.

This is extremely important because without it, the employee will often become discouraged for not being recognized for the effort they are committing to something that doesn’t come to them naturally (otherwise it would be a strength). As managers, we’ve often highlighted this area of improvement for our employees because the desired behavior is something we’ve personally exhibited or seen exhibited in others. In other words, it most likely comes naturally to us; it’s expected. However, we need to recognize that the level of effort to exhibit a desired behavior is not always equal from person to person.

For example:

  • Let’s say I sit down with one of my employees during our weekly 1:1 and share that she needs to start communicating with her teammates more proactively so we cultivate transparency and collaboration across the company. Great feedback that will not only benefit the employee, but also the company.
  • A few days later, the employee proactively decides to share an update about what she’s working on in the weekly leadership meeting. I decide not to acknowledge or complement her for this because from my perspective, this type of communication is expected from every leader in the company. In other words, she “should” be doing this.
  • What I failed to recognize is that the employee is by nature an introvert who abhors any type of public speaking opportunity. However, because she cares and wants to improve based on my feedback, she invested a few hours the night before preparing and practicing her update to muster up the courage to then present in front of the leadership team. This required tremendous effort on her behalf because it’s not a natural behavior and it stretched her outside her comfort zone.
  • As a result of not acknowledging her update, she gets discouraged because in her eyes, I haven’t recognized the effort she’s invested to taking my feedback to heart and improving on it. She thinks it’s a hopeless endeavor so why waste the effort.

This is impossible to measure but I would bet all my money that most employees who are given feedback really want to improve but get discouraged and give up because as they try to change behavior, it’s often not recognized and validated by their manager. When a manager recognizes the importance of validation and provides positive reinforcement to an employee who is demonstrating an effort to improve, it can make all the difference in that employee’s performance and thus, the company’s performance.

This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a manager: Change takes time. And it makes sense because behaviors are reinforced for years and years. It’s unrealistic for that change in behavior (someone who’s introverted and hates public speaking to all of a sudden become an eloquent orator) to happen suddenly overnight. Great management requires extraordinary patience and empathy.

I try and remind myself to take feedback the entire mile by providing positive reinforcement and validating the employee’s change in behavior. You’ll be surprised — before you know it, they will have turned a weakness into a strength.

*While this post is written from the perspective of a manager intended to help other managers, these lessons are just as relevant for an employee managing upwards with their supervisor. Great companies facilitate 360 communication and create a safe environment for employees to provide constructive feedback for their managers on how they can better support them.

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