The words we choose create images in the minds of others. The more we choose our words thoughtfully and explicitly, the more likely our success in creating a shared understanding about what we wish to convey. When it comes to performance feedback, whether verbal or written, this is best accomplished by being specific and providing work-related, behavior-based descriptions of what the employee said or did and the results achieved, and by avoiding generalizations and not imputing motive.
We tend to use language that is general, abstract, and imprecise, leaving the employee to make inferences or assumptions that may not be accurate. For example, a listener will hear a comment such as, “He is unreliable” and assume the person is, in fact, unreliable. If such a statement were challenged, the speaker would be required to substantiate it by providing a factual description of what the person said or did to earn the label “unreliable.”
This is something to consider when writing performance appraisals and when giving verbal performance feedback. For example, it isn’t adequate or helpful to simply tell a staff member that she or he is unreliable. You need to describe specifically what the employee did or did not do and why it is problematic. The same is true when giving positive feedback. For example, it is not sufficient to praise someone’s good presentation skills without explaining what the person is doing or saying.
When providing performance feedback, stick to the facts and to the business impact(s). Do not focus on personality traits or impute motive. If a staff member has been late to work five times in the past two weeks, simply state this fact. Don’t refer to the tardiness as a bad habit or a character defect. And, whenever possible, give feedback (positive and/or constructive) as close to the observed event as possible. Remember that generally it is okay to praise publicly, but constructive feedback should be given privately.
Remember, too, that effective performance feedback has the potential to enhance employee engagement, motivation, and job satisfaction. Conversely, performance feedback that is delayed or poorly communicated can have the potential to derail future performance.