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Upping Your Employee Feedback Game

The following post is submitted by Joyce Maroney, executive director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos.

For a lot of managers, the last few months of the year bring the launch of the annual performance review process.   Many managers dread  the administrative process and/or the resulting conversations they'll need to have while delivering reviews.  Why?

Giving feedback.  As a manager, you know it's the key to developing employees and boosting their motivation and productivity.  In study after study, people say they want to receive it from their managers.  You know you need to do (more of) it.  What holds you back?  For many managers the first answer is probably making the time for it, but for many it may be that giving feedback is going to entail having a difficult conversation with an employee.  Those difficult conversations can range from having to address under-performance to the challenge of providing your super star with adequate challenge and recognition.

I've managed other people for over 25 years, and had a lot of conversations with other leaders about ways to provide feedback that are actionable and effective.  Below, I share some of my key lessons learned.

Own your authority

I had to learn to stop couching my communications in a way that undermined my authority as a leader.  In my early years as a manager, I tended to adopt an almost apologetic tone when giving people feedback about their performance.  "I know this has been a tough time for you.  You've been really busy.  Perhaps I wasn't clear...." I learned that my team members needed me to be clear and succinct as to what needed to be done. And they appreciated constructive feedback that helped them improve their performance and their access to opportunities.  They didn't need me to preface feedback with a list of possible excuses for why improvement was needed.

Set the stage for feedback by establishing clear goals

People need their manager to be clear about goals.  The SMART framework is a good starting point; i.e. goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound.  You can find lots of references on how to write SMART goals.  The key is that you do this in a timely fashion for all of your team members, in writing, and revisit the goals together periodically to track progress and fine tune if needed.

Feedback should be frequent

When you see something, say something.  Feedback shouldn't be confined to the annual performance review.  When you observe an employee doing something positive, let them know what you observed and what the positive impact of that behavior was.  Likewise, when a negative behavior needs to be addressed, don't wait to have that conversation because...

Avoiding tough conversations only makes them harder

Giving employees feedback that there is something they need to change can be painful for both parties to the conversation.  The longer you let negative behaviors go on, the more difficult the conversations become.  Don't let issues escalate to the point that they are keeping you up at night.  In the absence of feedback from you that there is a problem, you're relying on magical thinking to solve it.

Framework for tough conversations

You can find lots of different models for having tough conversations.  In my experience, it boils down to a few key techniques:

  1. Prepare for the conversation, including coaching from HR if you need it.  What problem are you trying to solve? Is solving the problem likely possible? What are the person's options if they don't want to make the change required?  Think through the likely ways the conversation is apt to go.  When the stakes are high, consider role playing the conversation with an HR pro or another trusted advisor.
  2. Schedule adequate private time to have the conversation.
  3. Be direct. Start the conversation by saying "This is going to be a tough conversation." An HR leader suggested this technique to me early in my management career.  It may sound abrupt, but it's a great way to focus the conversation and keep you from undermining the seriousness of the conversation.
  4. Behavior-Impact.  Describe the behavior that needs to be addressed and clearly explain the impact it is having on others and on them.  When you weren't prepared with updates at the weekly XYZ project meeting, it negatively impacts your colleagues.  They may not be able to move forward on their own action items without that information. 
  5. Ask the person if they understand the feedback and what they need to address it.  “Are you aware of how your behavior comes across?  What do you think you can do to change this? What can I do as your manager to help you with this?
  6. Agree on an action plan to address the behavior.  As much as possible, the action plan should come from the employee, with you coaching as needed.

Don't skimp on the positive feedback

Global research we conducted in 2017 revealed that 41% of respondents were surprised by positive feedback they received in their most recent performance review while only 14% were surprised by negative feedback. On average, our survey respondents had last had positive feedback from their manager over 3 months before taking this survey.

Most of your employees are doing praiseworthy things every day.  Look for them.  The same Behavior-Impact technique described above works here too.  "Our boss was really impressed with the presentation you gave yesterday, as was I.  Your data was compelling and your call to action was clear."

What have you found to be effective techniques for providing effective feedback?  Share your ideas in the comments section.






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