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Give it to me straight

It’s time for annual people discussions at Microsoft. Employees are asked to write feedback for their peers, typically using the internal Perspectives tool. Managers are expected to write feedback for their employees using the internal Connects tool. That’s a lot of writing, and it’s often not great.

People mean well and want to provide actionable feedback, but writing is hard and providing feedback is awkward. You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or damage your relationship—after all, you need to collaborate in the future without the air dripping with resentment. Plus, if you write critical feedback about them, they might return the favor harming your rewards and future opportunities. It’s delicate.

Some people thread the needle of constructive feedback by writing little or nothing at all—just a few words or answers left blank. Their peers are left wanting acknowledgment, guidance, and appreciation. Some people avoid all critique and stay positive. Their peers may smile, but are left feeling alone—is no one there to help them grow and achieve their goals? Some people write novels with criticism mixed into a larger narrative, like burying pills in pet food. Their peers appreciate the feedback, but are confused by the message—what were you trying to say? There’s a better way to write performance feedback. I’ll give it to you straight without leaving you wanting, alone, or confused.

Don’t mince words

Writing great feedback doesn’t need to be hard, painful, or delicate. Here’s what to do:

  • Be concise. The more you write, the greater your chances are of conveying messages you don’t mean and hiding messages you want emphasized. Consider the important messages you want to deliver, and deliver them without flowery language or extra adjectives and adverbs.
  • Be clear. Say what you mean and mean what you say. That adage is true: Talking around the issue loses your point and makes everyone dizzy. If you like something, say you like it. If you expect something, say you expect it. If you’re disappointed, keep that to yourself—this isn’t about you, this is about your peer. Clearly tell your peer what you like and what you expect from them.
  • Focus. Effective feedback for peers and employees skips the common and mundane and focuses on what’s uniquely valuable or missing. What are the person’s superpowers, and how can they be used to greatest effect? What are the person’s gaps, and how can they be closed or mitigated? Everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses—that’s where their growth lies.

Need help applying these three rules to Perspectives and Connects? Let’s go through each question asked on their forms.

Eric Aside

For more on generally giving and receiving feedback, read I’m listening.

I’m glad you brought that up

The first question on Connects is from the “Looking Back” section asking about the person’s contributions. Perspectives ask a similar question about something the person does very well.

With the Connects tool, the person being reviewed usually provides plenty of details on their contributions over the review period, so there’s no need to rehash them. (The Perspectives tool doesn’t even expect a rehash.) Instead, you should thoughtfully and concisely acknowledge the person’s accomplishments, tying them to the person’s unique strengths. You can typically do this in one or two paragraphs. If the person forgot to mention something, you can add more details.

I typically write in the third person for Connects (“Michelle does”) and second person for Perspectives (“You do”). Doing so makes Connects seem more objective and professional and Perspectives seem more subjective and personal, which aligns with the differing roles of manager versus peer feedback.

Here’s an example from a recent Connect: “As you can read in [employee]‘s thoughtful and accurate comments, [employee] and their team have had an outstanding semester, delivering mission-critical capabilities to customers while also reducing costs, improving experiences, and embodying the Microsoft culture of inclusion and growth mindset.” I then go on to provide specific examples that highlight the employee’s strengths.

Unless the person failed to meet expectations, you can stay positive when answering the contribution question. If there’s a specific opportunity for the person to do even better, you can mention it in a positive tone: “There’s an opportunity to achieve even more if we…”. (I talk later about what to say if the person failed to meet expectations.)

Let me know how I stand

The second question on Connects from the “Looking Back” section asks what you could have done differently. Perspectives ask a similar question about something the person may want to rethink.

People aren’t quite as good about pinpointing events that didn’t go well during the review period, so you may need to add incident descriptions yourself. Regardless, you should acknowledge the learning and growth these incidents prompted. If the person was particularly introspective and open, you should highlight that fact and reinforce it.

After acknowledging the person’s serendipitous learning and growth, you should provide the most important part of your feedback: naming the one skill that would currently accelerate the person’s growth most. Sure, there may be several different improvements the person could make, but there’s one that would make the biggest difference right now. Since people have a tough time changing anything about themselves, let alone multiple things, focusing on a single skill gives the person the greatest chance to unlock their potential. Doing so puts this otherwise difficult feedback in a constructive and supportive light.

Here’s an example from a recent Perspective: “Your technical skills, systemic thinking, and strategic planning are more than sufficient for your continued growth. What’s holding you back now are your communication skills. Specifically, you need to understand your audience, tune your communication and arguments to meet them where they are, and frame your message in a way that resonates with your audience’s needs and goals. At the next level band, you will need to do this all the time to have continued success.”

Eric Aside

Focus on improving the one thing that would make the biggest difference also applies to team productivity. It’s the basis of the Theory of Constraints that I discuss in Productivity mechanics.

It’s time you were grounded

After the “Looking Back” section of Connects, there’s a checkbox for “Insufficient results” that can seem unclear, even with the associated explanation on the Connect form. As a manager, you should check the box if and only if the performance of the individual over the last review period was unacceptable. Their performance could be unacceptable because they failed to produce expected results and/or because they behaved unacceptably and refused to change that behavior.

If the person had unacceptable results or behavior, check the “Insufficient results” box and use your two “Looking Back” answers to clearly state what your expectations were and the gap between those expectations and what was delivered. You’ll then need to follow up regularly in one-on-ones with written feedback. You can find the details in The toughest job—Poor performers.

Eric Aside

If you find yourself not meeting expectations, read It’s not going to be okay to grow your way out of that situation.

I’m going to give you one more chance

The next question on Connects is from the “Going Forward” section, asking about the person’s upcoming key deliverables. (Perspectives don’t have a question like this.)

This question typically requires the shortest answer. Just acknowledge the plan the person mentions and fill in any gaps that the person missed. Often people are too detailed or shortsighted in their plans. You can take this opportunity to remind them of the high-level vision and strategy, tying it back to the details they mentioned.

Here’s an example from a recent Connect: “[Employee] has an exciting and impactful list of value to deliver in the upcoming semesters. Their plan aligns well with [our org] objectives. I have little doubt they and their team will continue to be successful.”

Do you mean it?

The last question on Connects, also from the “Going Forward” section, asks what you will do to learn and grow. Perspectives go back to asking what you most value about working with the person.

On Connects, people usually list several thoughtful steps to take to learn and grow. For my answer, I typically switch to second person (“Michelle, you had a …”), since this question is more personal. The answer provides a great opportunity to recap the review period, stress what’s unique and valuable about the person, remind them of the one skill that would accelerate their growth most, and thank them for all their contributions this review period. It’s a great way to wrap up concise, clear, and focused feedback.

Here’s an example from a recent Connect: “[Employee], you are a remarkable dev lead. You are admired by your staff and peers, as well as your management. You set an example of technical excellence, customer obsession, and our aspirational culture of inclusion and personal growth. Your team has an established track record of delivering value and impact to our customers and Microsoft. I love having you on my staff. I see you improving every day. Thank you for a great semester completed and more great semesters to come.”

Eric Aside

There are many ways to go over your Connect feedback with an employee. I read my Connect comments aloud to my employee before I submit them. It helps me catch poor wording and lets me frame my words in the tone I intended. After discussing the feedback, I ask if anything seemed inaccurate, inappropriate, or misleading. I then make appropriate corrections and submit the completed Connect.

What’s the word on the street?

When writing a Connect, you want to include feedback the person received throughout the review period from their peers. That feedback could be in email, electronic kudos, or Perspectives. Folks typically quote that feedback when writing their Connects (as I suggest in Connects with impact), but sometimes they’ll miss or leave out some relevant comments that can support and enhance your feedback.

In keeping with concise, clear, and focused feedback, avoid providing a long list of potentially disconnected quotes. Instead, use quotes in context to inform, affirm, and reinforce your message. Some of the best quotes come from people discussions, because they put a person’s results and impact in context with the rest of the organization. Be sure to incorporate these insights into your Connect comments.

Do you hear me?

Providing actionable feedback to your peers is a core responsibility of all employees. It can be the difference between plateauing and breaking through, between losing your way and achieving your career goals.

Be concise, clear, and focused in your feedback. Discuss how the person’s unique strengths enable their results. Inform the person of the one skill that would accelerate their growth most right now. If they aren’t meeting expectations, state your expectations clearly and describe the gap between them and what they actually did. Reaffirm the person’s plans for the future and tie them to the larger vision and strategy. Provide them a personal message about how much you appreciate their contributions. And use quotes from peers to inform, affirm, and reinforce these messages.

It can be a little uncomfortable and time consuming to provide effective feedback to the people you work alongside, but it makes a huge difference. Think of the times you’ve received particularly insightful or actionable feedback. Think of the impact it had on you and your career. Now is your chance to give this gift to others.

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