Two of the greatest fears people have are “the unknown” and “change.” Put them together in the workplace and the result is the “fear of failure.”

When employees, who are already concerned about their performance, see their boss’s caller ID, or the boss shows up unannounced at the cubicle or office door, the initial reaction is often, “What did I do wrong?” or “What will I have to do now?”

There is nothing wrong with leaders meeting or speaking with team members as they choose. In fact, I encourage executives to do it often. However, I advise that leaders do so with the intent to improve results, share what’s on his or her mind and engage in discussions with people regarding their professional development.

After the annual review process, individual employees who achieve their objectives often see bonuses distributed before the end of the first quarter. While that is great incentive, one has to wonder what message this sends for the rest of the year? Where is the ongoing, timely feedback team members need to stay on-track and recalibrate as necessary?

Break the annual review pattern and provide regular, timely feedback so employees know how they’re doing, understand where they need to improve, and can focus on improving performance rather than on the unknown.

Here are some ways to break free from the cycle:

  1. Keep notes. Have files on team members and have your direct reports keep them as well. Files should be at your fingertips so observations can be recorded in a timely fashion (no more waiting until the end of the year and then trying to remember various incidents, behaviors, etc.).
  2. Make the most of each moment. Use every meeting with an individual as an opportunity to provide behavior modification feedback.This includes tweaking something to enhance excellent behavior as well as correcting behaviors necessary for continued employment. When team leaders rely solely on more formal, annual Performance Improvement Plans and when timely feedback is delayed, there is the risk of employees developing resentment for leadership and/or their situations and the employee making little improvement (if any). “Why didn’t you tell me earlier in the year? I could have changed the way I do things.”
  3. Be timely. Simply waiting for annual reviews to provide feedback doesn’t allow employees time to course-correct, which prevents them from modifying behaviors and achieving their goals. With timely feedback, linked clearly to an event, activity, or observed behavior, both leaders and employees have a better chance of achieving desired results. Constant and timely feedback throughout the year empowers teams to make changes and modify behaviors on the fly, allowing for positive results. Being timely also eliminates surprises of seemingly “out of the blue” negative feedback, because a leader writes an annual review strictly from memory.
  4. Ask permission. Before giving feedback always ask, “May I give you feedback?” This approach makes the discussion about the employee and, thus, more relevant. The employee will listen intently to what the manager says about his or her performance.
  5. Be positive and factual. Always deliver good news first. When you want an employee to modify a behavior, first share a positive observation. Deliver a specific example of where you observed the positive behavior and avoid using terms such as “however,” “but,” “that being said,” and “although” to introduce negative, follow-up observations. Using such terms causes the feedback recipient to ignore the positive while he or she waits for the “other shoe to drop.”
    • Example #1—Leader: “I’ve observed your behavior and reviewed your recent performance. May I give you feedback?” Employee: “Yes.” (You can be certain the employee is now in “fear” mode.) Leader: “Thank you. I observed you doing ‘x’ and it was good. Something I suggest you consider going forward is ____.”
    • Example #2—Leader: “I’ve reviewed your performance to date and I would like to discuss this with you. May I give you feedback?” Employee: “Yes.” (Again, employee is now almost certainly in “fear” mode.) Employer: “Thank you. Your numbers aren’t where we discussed they should be. What do you need to do differently? What do you need from me?

 Stuart Friedman is president of Progressive Management Associates. He guides organizations through cultural shifts, getting people aligned to strategic outcomes. Reach Stuart via email: