Delivering Effective Feedback

©2003, Esther Derby, www.estherderby.com

Josh was dumbfounded when his boss, Brad, fired him. As far as he knew, his work was just fine. But Brad believed he’d given Josh ample warning that his work and work habits weren’t up to par.

When Brad told me he’d fired Josh, he seemed puzzled, too.

“I just don’t get it,” Brad said. “Josh acted all surprised that he was being fired. But he should have known. I told him not to watch stocks at work. And it wasn’t just that,” Brad continued. “His other work wasn’t so great. I expect tech writers to turn over clean copy. When Josh handed in work, I always had to proof it.”

“Hmmm. That is puzzling,” I said. “How did you give him feedback?”

“Well, I was walking by his desk one day and saw him checking the stock market sites, so I asked him what he was doing. Josh closed the browser and said something lame like ‘Oh nothing.’ So I said to him, ‘Doesn’t look like nothing to me. Looks to me like you’re checking out the markets.’”

“Is that the only time you gave Josh feedback?” I asked.

“No, I gave him other feedback. I brought up appropriate Internet use at a team meeting. And I gave him feedback on his writing, but it was always the same thing. I told him, but he just never listened.”

“How’d you tell him about his writing?” I asked. I was beginning to detect a pattern.

“Well, I proofed it and handed him back the markup. Next time it was the same thing. All five chapters he worked on were the same. It was like he expected me to proof his work,” Brad huffed.

I’ll bet poor Josh didn’t have a clue he was in hot water at work.

Communicating Expectations

Brad may have been more effective, and Josh might still have his job, if Brad had followed these steps for delivering clear and intentional feedback.

Give serious feedback in a serious setting. Brad gave Josh important information in a casual manner while walking by his cube. Neither the timing nor the setting marked the communication as important. Regular one-on-one meetings are a great place to provide feedback for minor course corrections. Always schedule a separate, private meeting to address situations that are more serious.

Address specific issues individually. Brad made a general announcement outlining appropriate Internet use in a staff meeting. General announcements of policy don’t carry the same weight as an individual conversation. If it’s important enough to bring up, it’s important enough to speak directly to the person involved.

Give clear examples. Brad would have been more effective if he had said something like, “Josh, I saw that you were checking the stock markets on the Internet this afternoon, and on Monday and Tuesday,” or “In Chapter 1, I had to correct numerous spelling and grammar errors.” General statements such as “your work is of poor quality” don’t provide enough specific information for people to know what to improve. Labeling statements, such as “you’re a sloppy writer,” will set up an oppositional dynamic that is likely to go nowhere.

Check for agreement. Getting agreement on the data is the first step in problem solving. Provide concrete facts. People are more likely to accept what you say when it is specific and observable. Josh will probably acknowledge that there were spelling errors in Chapter 1; Josh is less likely to admit to being sloppy. (Of course, if the employee consistently denies the facts, that’s another problem for another article.)

Request a change in performance. While he did drop little hints, Brad never clearly communicated to Josh that he’d like to see changes. Brad could have said, “I’ve marked spelling and grammar errors on the copy you gave me. In the future, I expect copy to be clean when I receive it.”

Engage in problem solving. Brad could have made a straightforward request for a change in performance, or he could have engaged Josh in helping to solve the problem. Brad might have said, “Josh, I was surprised at the number of spelling and grammar errors in the chapter you turned over to me. I expect copy to be clean when I receive it. What are three ways you can make sure the copy’s in good shape?” Josh might come up with several ways to reduce errors. He’s more likely to accept the solution if he’s involved in creating it.

Agree on how you’ll follow up. Sometimes you’ll need to follow up on the changes you’ve requested. Brad and Josh could have made an agreement that Brad would skim for obvious spelling and grammar errors and return the work to Josh if he found any.

Check for understanding. Brad assumed that his indirect hints were sufficient. He didn’t check to ensure that Josh had received the message. One manager I know wraps up feedback conversations by saying, “I’m going to check for understanding now. I’d like you to summarize our conversation for me so I can be sure I’ve been clear.”

Giving clear and intentional feedback is an important part of every manager’s responsibilities. Our employers pay us to provide timely information to our direct reports to guide and influence their work and work habits. Providing feedback effectively gives employees information that may help them improve their performance. And that means we’re more likely to meet management goals, too.

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