How do you think you did?

After running a residential weekend on Leadership Skills for some MBA students I was keen to make sure they applied their learning when they got back to work.  I wanted them to commit to at least one action that would change the way they work and improve their management skills.  “So what are you going to differently tomorrow?” I asked.  The responses were many and various but were not specific enough for my liking.

“I’m going to try to listen more and talk less” one said. “I’m going to improve the way we make decisions in my organisation” offered another.  These were encouraging resolutions but were not specific enough for my liking.  Then one of the quieter members of the group said “Well from now on, whenever I am giving feedback or carrying out an appraisal, I’m going to start the conversation with ‘How do you think you did?’”.  It’s a little thing, but her words made my heart sing!

The weekend course had involved a lot of group work where individuals gave feedback to each other on their performance after each exercise.  At first they approached this by immediately reeling off a list of what they thought the other person did well and what they didn’t do well (sadly the emphasis was nearly always on the negatives).  However, I had been encouraging them to start each feedback session with a question: “How do you think you did?”.  Gradually, they got the hang of it and began to see the benefits of this approach.

There are many situations where managers are called on to comment on the performance of their staff.  It could involve one of those difficult conversations where concerns about performance need to be raised.  It might be part of a performance appraisal or it could just be because someone has asked you for feedback.  If the feedback is positive the conversation is fairly straightforward.  If not, the approach needs careful handling.

There are two main advantages of starting with the question “How do you think you did?”:


  • If things have gone wrong or there are performance problems there is a good chance that the other person will talk about these problems in their response to your question.  How much better is it for them to raise the issues rather than you?  Immediately you have been offered a way in to a discussion about why these problems came about and how they can be addressed.  Yes, I know that there are some people who will never own up to mistakes or short comings but in my experience most people are reasonably self-aware and, given the right environment, they are relatively honest.
  • If the performance issues are identified and raised by the other person, rather than you, there is a much better chance of them taking responsibility for the problem and doing something about it.  When a person is simply told that they’ve got something wrong, even though they might agree, they are more likely to question their manager’s judgement and go on the defensive.  In this situation they will feel much less inclined to address the issues, and so improving their performance becomes an uphill battle.

Giving feedback and managing performance involves a lot more than opening the discussion with a question.   But that question can make difficult conversations a whole lot easier.  I loved my group member for giving herself a simple practical action that she can implement immediately at work.   Just six words – “How do you think you did?” – can be surprisingly effective.



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