A Word about Giving Feedback
In my younger years, I remember breaking up with a certain love interest..ok more than one. Each time, when I shared with my friends, the patterns were somehow startlingly clear to them. This was frustrating to me, but really helpful. Despite my stories of this or that or the other, which was maybe going to be the last time… they heard the patterns loud and clear. And, when there was a glimmer of hope that the relationship could be mended (good bye single life!), they were able to remind me of the opposing patterns and help me avoid seeing what I merely wanted to see and reminded me of the reality of what I was in fact seeing. Occasionally, my hopes clouded my ability to see reality clearly. Seeking a new perspective can help. Feedback helps us to step away, see the forest for the trees, and in this case not get lulled by a false sense of hope and avoiding seeing patterns and postponing inevitable outcomes.
I frequently hear managers talk about challenging staff and their behaviors. They, too, miss the forest for the trees. Managers often feel the disappointments and losses too closely and inevitably miss the patterns that they could otherwise identify and work to change. This is most likely to happen with a staff member whom the manager hired themselves (as opposed to a direct report that they inherited from a predecessor). I believe this is due to an inability to reconcile the once hopeful feeling that the manager had about the potential that they saw in this employee. This is also more likely to happen when perceptions tell us that replacing the challenging employee feels more challenging than turning a blind eye to the undesired or unproductive (and usually not immediately destructive) behavior.
This inability to identify and communicate the patterns is a confusing phenomenon. This same phenomenon can easily occur when giving and receiving feedback. Sometimes the feedback may be so focused on the specifics that the pattern is missed. In this case, the recipient of the feedback feels invited, if not required, to explain away how each specific event went wrong or why this feedback represents misunderstood actions. The defense becomes an explanation of how the behavior is not a pattern and therefore does not require change.
These phenomena sometimes happen in conversations where managers have the tough job of helping employees recognize that they are no longer happy working in the organization. They may no longer be happy with the job duties, happy with the expectations, or happy with the metrics being used to define their success in the role. This is not too terribly unlike my breakup from years gone by.
Here are several keys to successful feedback conversations. Avoid words that are trigger words like never and always. Stick to the patterns but allow for a possible exception. Details are necessary to substantiate a claim (and to ensure fair treatment and equity), so be prepared with them if asked. But, the point of a smooth feedback conversation is not to rehash all of the gory details. The point is to get to the pattern as quickly as possible, explain how the pattern does not align with desired expectations and outcomes, and then help employees see how they can, if they choose to do so, alter their behavior and find a new path forward to thrive.
Additionally, when giving feedback, stay as objective as possible and work to the shared goal, which is to retain employees and watch them be successful.
In some cases where feedback has not been timely, it’s difficult to not imagine pulling in the dump truck and unloading all of the feedback on a year’s worth of misdoings on the team member when the time for giving feedback finally arrives. This also is not productive and is a bit unfair. As with many aspects of life, having staff members walk away with a few concrete takeaways can improve their lives and their performance, and it will provide more clarity as a better starting point for future conversations. And, it also provides management with tangible points to use as follow-up for future regular accountability check-ins.