It’s no secret. Most employees dread the performance review. And managers have the unenviable task of delivering feedback, which sometimes can be very negative.

Why do reviews inspire a feeling of dread? A quick straw poll would point to fear of criticism. Surprisingly, this fear affects not only those at the bottom of the performance ladder but those at the top too. A study challenges the assumption that high performers and people with high motivation to learn, take critical feedback in their stride, without being affected. It appears that even those keen on constantly improving their skills get discouraged by negative feedback. Which means managers have a stiff task: deliver constructive feedback without being critical.

How can this be done? In an earlier post, we had shared tips on Delivering the Gift of Feedback. Here, we present another suggestion: use empathy.

Empathy is defined as ‘the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another’. This tool can help you step into the other person’s shoes. Its aim is not turn the review process into one that generates sympathy for the employee. Rather, it fine-tunes you as a manager to have better conversations with your team. Here’s how empathy can play out in the review process.

  • Helps frame the message better. Empathy, as Dr Brené Brown says in this video, lets you develop connections. It lets you recognize the emotions of another person and respond to them. Think of how your team members are different from each other. By reading a member’s emotional cues, you can develop the right way to frame your message for him or her. As research shows, how you say what you say matters! Your high-performer might feel that a rating of 4 on 5 is not good enough! Begin by creating a positive context in which that rating stands out and let the resistance ease.
  • Allows you to get a different view. Why did a person not meet the goal set for the year? Was the goal definition unrealistic or was there lack of organizational support to achieve it? As a manager, you need feedback from team members about what worked for them and what did not. Empathy enables you to listen better and consider their views more carefully. Empathetic listening also gives you tools to limit the emotional impact a not-so-good message might elicit.
  • Lets you inspire. Most employees worry about the power a review process gives the manager. But a manager who invites employee views and displays willingness to listen inspires trust and shows leadership skills. Employees feel encouraged to express their ideas; the review remains a two-way street. Managers who show empathy with their reportees are seen as better performers by their own bosses, says a study by the Center For Creative Leadership.

Empathy can take the bite out of criticism and help deliver the message without the sting. In fact, demonstrating empathy is a great way to strengthen relationship with team members. As Jayson Boyers points out, successful businesses often have leaders who have mastered the skill of empathy.  With so much waiting to be gained, why not use its power this review season? Don’t forget to tell us how it works for you.

Leave a Reply