The Last 8% of Constructive Feedback Conversations

Updated August 2022 – Does anyone actually like their annual performance review? Leaders don’t enjoy preparing for them and employees dread attending them. “Our research shows that more than 70% of all organizations dislike the process they have, and I have yet to talk with an employee or manager who likes it at all (one client calls it a ‘soul-crushing’ exercise),” writes HR analyst and thought leader, Josh Bersin.

Organizations such as GE, Gap, Accenture, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Adobe are remodeling this soul-crushing exercise. According to a SHRM article by Dana Wilkie, “Among the changes: eliminating all numeric scales; doing away with forced or stacked rankings that create competition among employees; and replacing the once-a-year appraisal with ongoing feedback on a workers performance throughout the year.” In a March 2017 Fortune magazine article, “One big reason for the shift: Today’s companies now change strategy so often that annual performance reviews can be moot by the time they’ve completed them.”

Although many companies are moving away from the annual performance review, there is still a need for a direct report to succeed and grow in their current role. Employers must set clear performance expectations while providing feedback and encouragement. In fact, research shows that team members desire to feel valued, heard and even loved.

Communication Drives Engagement

According to a Gallup article by Jim Harter and Randall Beck “Managers account for up to 70% of variance in engagement and consistent communication is connected to higher engagement.” It really should be no surprise then, that less than 1/3 of Americans are fully engaged in their work. This again is according to Gallup, the organization who has consistently reported this number since 2000.

The real challenge is that most managers think they are good and even great communicators. Let it be known, most fall short, creating confusion and disengagement. Recently, there has been a specific communication gap discovered between leaders and direct reports.

The Last 8%

Dr. JP Pawliw- Fry with the Institute for Health and Human Potential explains this gap as, “A distinct pattern we see over and over again in the leadership development training programs we run: when leaders face a difficult conversation, a feedback conversation or a performance review, most cover 85, 90 or 92% of the content of what they want to say in the conversation, but a funny thing happens when they get to the more difficult part, what we call the Last 8%. When they hit this part of the conversation where there are consequences to what they are saying they start to notice that the other person is becoming more anxious and (because emotions are infectious) they themselves become more anxious.”

This research further explains when the person being coached starts to feel nervous and becomes defensive, the leader starts to question themselves on whether they have their facts straight. This is where the leader loses concentration and momentum to have a full courageous conversation. It ends there. But, the real problem here is that the leader actually believes they had the full conversation. The failure to explain the Last 8% leaves the other person unclear on expectations. It’s not surprising then that the same direct report problem comes up again several months later, and the leader becomes disappointed and frustrated. There lies the problem of not having the Last 8% of that constructive feedback conversation.

How do we have a complete Voice, Empathy, Feedback (VEF™) even in the Last 8%?

From a brain science perspective and utilizing emotional intelligence EI we need to communicate in a way that doesn’t stimulate the fight or flight response or defensive behavior. The first step of effective communication is listening to the other person and validating his or her feelings because they are real. This level of empathy is needed in communication so the other person is open to receiving your constructive feedback. If you start giving feedback before he or she is ready, their response can be defensive and unwavering. If one person moves into a fight or flight mode, research shows that this person can’t even hear you because his or her heart rate is increasing and oxygen is flowing south to larger muscles away from the thinking brain.

When a person is labeled in a performance review, it can cause an automatic negative response. “This neural response is the same type of brain hijack that occurs when there is an imminent physical threat like a confrontation with a wild animal. It primes people for rapid reaction and aggressive movement. But it is ill-suited for the kind of thoughtful, reflective conversation that allows people to learn from a performance review,” according to an article in Strategy + Business magazine titled Kill Your Performance Rating byDavid Rock,Josh Davis, andBeth Jones

There is an excellent constructive communication tool that can avoid the automatic fight or flight response utilizing the knowledge gained from EI. It is called the VEF™ – Voice, Empathy, Feedback Tool. This simple tool provides a framework for a complete courageous feedback conversation that advantageously, also includes the Last 8%.

  1. Give the other person a Voice, and share why you are having this discussion. Clarify your intention for the meeting. Seek contribution not blame. Realize that what you think you said may not have been understood clearly, and allow feedback as to how you made them feel. I realize I may have not communicated clearly.
  2. Empathize with the person and validate by acknowledging his or her experience – thoughts, feelings, motivations, and perspective. I understand it’s been tough. I have felt like that before…
  3. Offer your Feedback– I appreciate you and here is what we need from you moving forward. Focus on his or her impact, not on intentions and be specific about behaviors that may not be acceptable. Tell specifically what you want from him or her to change. Use words like, We need you to… or We expect you to…or This organization relies on you to…
  4. End on reminding this person how you feel about his or her team contribution – You are a valued member, you have been loyal for a long time. We need you on our team. Here is what we need from you to move forward…

Leaders who have incorporated the VEF™ – Voice, Empathy, Feedback communication tool into their culture, see real benefits and continue to see improvement over time. It is critical that leaders are proactive in their daily, difficult, and courageous conversations with direct reports to keep them engaged and at their highest productivity level. Most importantly, as leaders we need to ask ourselves are we really having the Last 8% of that constructive feedback conversation.

About the Author

Bobi Seredich is a recognized  emotional intelligence keynote speaker, author, trainer and successful entrepreneur specializing in leadership development. She has spent over 20 years of her career dedicated to creating, directing, writing and presenting leadership programs for top companies in the U.S. and around the world.
Bobi is the co-founder of the Southwest Institute for Emotional Intelligence and Managing Partner of EQ Inspirations. She can be reached at