“Tie your shoes so you don’t fall! … You did a great job sharing your toys with your friends today.” Sound familiar? If you’re a parent, you’ve probably made similar comments to your children, to teach them how to get by in the world.
But when it comes to giving feedback to other adults, most of us feel uncomfortable — especially in
the workplace. Why? We make the common mistake of assuming that feedback is the same as criticism. Yet the only way people can produce better results on the job is to get timely and constructive feedback from their managers.
Of course, you wouldn’t give adults feedback in the same way you would a child — or as often.
Parents may correct a child’s behavior several times a day in the interest of teaching. However, you do
still need to use feedback as a teaching tool with your direct reports. To deliver effective feedback, follow these five steps:
Decide whether to give feedback
Determine when to deliver it
Focus the feedback on the employee’s behavior, and
Involve the employee in creating an improvement plan
How do these steps work in practice? Let’s see how Steve, a manager at a consulting firm, handles a feedback situation with an employee, Antonia.
Antonia is a star performer. She often works late and on weekends, and never says “no” to a project.
Her clients appear pleased with the quality of her work. But because of her huge workload, Antonia often has trouble focusing on important deliverables until just before they’re due. Steve is worried that her deliverables might start slipping and that she will burn out. He has also heard a few junior consultants express frustration with Antonia’s last-minute changes on project reports. But since
Antonia works so hard and her clients are happy, Steve is hesitant to say anything. Steve is at step one
in the feedback process: deciding whether to give feedback.
In this case, Steve should give Antonia feedback. Why? Her tendency to take on too much work and leave things to the last minute is beginning to have a negative impact on others. Also, it’s a recurrent
behavior that could easily be improved through coaching. For example, Steve could coach Antonia on managing her time and delegating tasks to others.
Steve decides feedback is appropriate in this situation and moves to step two in the feedback process:
determining when to deliver feedback to Antonia. In some instances, it’s best to give informal
feedback immediately — especially if you want to reinforce productive behavior. For example, if Antonia effectively responded to a tough question from a client during a conference call, Steve could congratulate her after they hung up.
But with feedback intended to address unproductive behavior, Steve should schedule a meeting to discuss the issue and allow time to prepare. To allow sufficient time for preparation, Steve schedules a meeting with Antonia for Friday. Scheduling is also helpful in cases where a manager has negative emotions such as frustration or annoyance about some unproductive behavior, and needs a cooling-off
Steve is ready for step three in the feedback process: preparation. Before his meeting with Antonia,
he gathers and documents specific information about the unproductive behavior he wants to address. For example, he lists several recent deliverables that Antonia completed minutes before they were due. He also thinks about how he will couch the comments that junior staff members have made about Antonia’s last-minute changes — and how he will connect these observations to Antonia’s impact on others.
This leads to step four: focusing feedback on the employee’s behavior. On Friday, Steve starts off
the meeting by acknowledging Antonia’s hard work and expressing his appreciation for her efforts. He then expresses his concerns. He focuses his comments on Antonia’s behavior and the negative impact
it has on others. For example, he points out that the last several reports were completed just before they were due. Then he explains that when Antonia leaves reports until the last minute, other team members have to stay late to make the changes to get the reports out on time.
Steve avoids making any judgmental statements about Antonia’s character or professional abilities, such as: “You don’t seem to care about your teammates’ workload” or “You’re not good at managing your time.”
Now that Steve has delivered feedback on Antonia’s unproductive behavior, he moves to step five in
the process: involving the employee in creating an improvement plan. He asks Antonia for her
thoughts and invites her to provide any information he may be missing. She explains that she hadn’t
realized her last-minute work was creating a burden for others. She appreciates his telling her and wants to find a way to improve things.
Steve asks Antonia how they might come up with an improvement plan together. He listens to her ideas and then helps her define realistic goals. For instance, Antonia tells him that, starting immediately, she intends to complete all her projects well before the last minute — even if it means
extra hours on her part. Steve appreciates her willingness to make a quick change, but suggests starting off with a more manageable goal: “Let’s take the next few months to work toward that goal —
and include delegating portions of your work to junior staff to lighten your workload.”
To boost the chances that Antonia will commit to the plan, Steve asks her to write up their agreement and e-mail it to him. To show his own commitment, he agrees to check in with Antonia over the coming weeks to see how she’s doing. He plans to provide any support she might need, such as help
with delegating tasks or tips on managing time.
Steve initially felt uncomfortable with the idea of giving Antonia feedback on her unproductive behavior. But the feedback process enabled him to handle the situation effectively and generate positive results. First, Steve decided it was appropriate to give Antonia feedback. Second, he determined when to deliver it. Third, he prepared for the meeting. Fourth, he focused his feedback on Antonia’s behavior and its impact on others. And fifth, he involved Antonia in developing an
improvement plan. Three months later, Antonia achieved her goal: delegating some of her work and completing all projects in a timely manner.
Giving feedback to an employee is always challenging. But it becomes easier if you remember that
feedback is a teaching tool, not a means for criticizing or judging. By following this five-step process,
you can help your employees improve their on-the-job performance.