Turn Feedback Into a Partnership

Taking a partnership approach helps both sides reach their destination.

If it seems like feedback is one-sided, that’s probably because it is.

Traditional feedback operates with a sense of hierarchy. The giver holds the power and the position. He or she spends most of the time talking and tuning. The process feels more like “tell and sell” than “listen and learn.” At its core, this type of feedback sparks fear, not joy.

In today’s post-pandemic workplace, this approach is no longer viable. Employees work with less visibility and greater flexibility than before. Tasks are more complex and interconnected. And there’s an expectation (especially among younger workers) that feedback is delivered more frequently and with a coaching outlook.

The time is right for a different mindset and message around feedback — one that turns performance into a partnership.

A new focus for feedback

Drawing on the power and principles of “feedforward,” this partnership approach can help redefine our beliefs and behaviors around feedback — from ratings to relationships, accountability to agency, and blame to contribution.

As a feedback partner, it’s the manager’s job to show others where to look but not tell them what to see. Partnership feedback is guided by powerful questions, active listening and genuine dialogue. It requires a measure of humility and curiosity on the part of the feedback giver, whose primary focus is helping others navigate towards a better understanding of their own potential and future possibilities.

Because this process can often feel winding, I think about it in terms of a shared journey between a scout (employee) and a guide (manager). Each partner has distinct roles: The guide maps the coordinates and checks the conditions. The scout chooses the path and sets the pace. The journey unfolds in three stages, and neither side can complete it without the other.

Stage 1: Summit

Performance partnerships start at the summit, the moment of peak. Managers take the lead by asking their reports about an action or outcome that left them feeling energized and excited. While it may seem counter-intuitive to begin the journey at its end, the sequence is intentional: Starting with strengths stimulates positive emotions in the receiver and uplifts, rather than upends, one’s sense of self. Unlike traditional feedback, which puts deficits at the forefront, a partnership model seeks to identify and operationalize individual assets and accomplishments.

Some of the questions manager-guides might ask their employee-scouts include:

  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • Tell me about a problem you solved.
  • Looking back a few months, what are you most proud of?

Stage #2: Trek

The next stage in this performance partnership is the trek. Having recalled and relived a peak moment, the manager-guide and employee-scout retrace the steps that made that outcome possible. As the saying goes, success has many fathers. Few people reach the top of the mountain by themselves. This is where feedback can provide a useful account of the people and conditions that contributed to an individual’s success.

Ask others who or what made this possible. It may have been the product of a quiet collaboration. Or the result of a redesigned schedule. Getting to the destination is a visible achievement. But paying attention to the trek — the process itself — reveals hidden triumphs. It reinforces the idea that good things tend to come from supportive ensembles, not individual heroics.

These are some of the ways manager-guides and employee-scouts can plot the path:

  • Did you struggle along your way? Who helped you?
  • Did I or others play a role in your journey?
  • What else might have made this moment possible?

Stage #3: Climb

The final stage of the performance partnership is the climb. Doing something one time is a moment. Doing something time and again is a pattern. To scale success, we need to focus on future actions that can help us return to the mountain top. This is the fundamental goal of feedforward: to point people towards a future they can still change and control.

Ultimately, it is the job of the employee-scout to make it back up the mountain. To promote the agency of others, a good partner offers support, but not a lifeline. It’s far more effective for the manager-guide to help describe the road ahead rather than prescribe a specific route. And by listening to what the employee-traveler needs to be successful, he or she will be in better position to support that journey and assess progress along the way.

To help others scale success, these prompts are especially useful:

  • Are your goals aligned with our business objectives and key results?
  • Where do you see yourself headed? Why?
  • Do you have the time and resources to continue your journey?

Progress through partnership

Turning feedback into a partnership not only levels the field, but it clears the way for more collaborative, constructive conversation about work. When managers act like “mirror holders,” they not only expand the way others see themselves, but they deepen their own understanding of events and actions that might otherwise remain out of view. Instead of debates over the past, feedback becomes a discussion about the future.

As a feedback model, performance partnerships don’t require major investments of time or money. They fit alongside current performance management systems. And they can produce much-needed insights about how work gets done. Isn’t it time we traded power for partnership?

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