Giving Feedback to Startup Employees

During my first human resources job for Arthur Andersen, I was introduced to the beauty of self-awareness. Even in the early 1990s the firm was HR-progressive, introducing a mandatory 360-degree feedback program.Back then, upward feedback was thrilling. A chance to honestly share what my boss could do better? I had been raised to respect my elders so there was little opportunity to openly correct my elders. And back then the workplace was about respect too. You followed the boss’ orders and only provided your opinion when asked. But the 90s brought an HR revolution. And workers everywhere started hearing the phrase that still echoes in my mind today.

Feedback is a gift.

But just like Black Friday has overshadowed Thanksgiving, in the workplace we’ve moved from giving thanks to getting things done. We want products launched quicker, apps built sooner, and people to work faster. The assembly line isn’t swift enough. Connections must be instantaneous.

And nowhere do we move faster than in startup and high-growth companies. For the most part that’s expected. And it works just fine. Unless we’re talking about feedback. The latest trend? Real-time feedback. Startup leaders and founders love to espouse how performance reviews are worthless. “We give real-time feedback,” they say. But they’re wrong. Here’s why:

Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feedback is risky.

Sure, the chance you might be sued for wrongful termination is slim. But it only takes one expensive lawsuit for a company to realize the importance of documentation. Large companies can usually absorb the excessive costs but small, growing companies don’t have the time or the money to handle these distractions.

You can’t learn without reflection.

The best learning doesn’t happen in the moment. It happens when you’ve had time to think about your behaviors and ask questions and advice. There’s no time for that when you’re getting performance feedback during a stressful program launch or while trying to meet a deadline. You correct and move on. But what did you actually learn?

Patterns are indiscernible.

Unless you’re documenting feedback on a regular basis, there’s no way to account for patterns. As human beings we’re swayed by the “recency effect.” Someone screws up and it will always overshadow his or her earlier successes. There’s no real way to look at someone’s performance in totality if you’re only dropping “do this better” here and there.

You lose the 360-degree perspective.

As a boss, your perception of an employee’s performance will always be somewhat different than the employee’s peers, customers or clients. Measuring them based only on your perception is misleading and unfair. It also means you might miss key behavioral strengths or weaknesses that only come out when the boss isn’t around.

I’m not advocating complicated performance management processes or constricting review forms no one reads. Meaningful feedback is about time: taking the time to write down your thoughts, compare them to a previous period of time, share them with the employee and allow for an actual dialogue.

It’s the time of year when we give gifts. And honest, fair, focused feedback is the career gift your team deserves. Take a breath. Take a seat. And take the time to give the gift of feedback.


Susan LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo, a workforce consultancy that helps startups and high-growth companies build their cultures, employer brands and talent strategies. Contact exaqueo to learn more about how we can help you build a workforce that’s aligned with your company culture and develop an employer brand that will allow your business to scale the right way.

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