Here are a few more thoughts on the subject of giving feedback…

A constant flow of information about how people are performing will keep their performance as close to on target as possible, as we pointed out in the last post.  Waiting to give feedback allows performance to stray until such time as you actually give the feedback to correct performance.  Every minute of substandard performance costs your organization.

Interestingly, your other employees know when a co-worker is under-performing long before you do.  They are closer to it and they see it every day .The longer it takes you to recognize the poor performer and act on it, the more credibility you lose as a leader.  The other employees see you as weak, unaware, or unable to make the tough decisions.  Conversely, when you do act on poor performers, other employees learn from it.  They learn that they must perform; they learn what poor performance looks like; and, they learn that you will act on poor performance.  Most importantly, they will learn that you have the strength and courage to do what is in the best interest of the organization and, therefore, in their best interest.  They will respect that.

Also, consider this.  When giving feedback to an individual about something they have done, you need to do so as soon as the action has occurred, or as close to it as possible.  In this way the action you are referring to has just occurred and the specifics of it, the assumptions and motivations behind it, and the impact of it are as clear as possible.  It is easiest to correct the behavior in that moment; the learning opportunity is at its greatest.  Waiting until the annual performance review to give examples leaves a lot of room for a lack of clarity and misunderstanding.   

Finally, how you give feedback is as important as what you say.  A couple of pointers on this:

Make feedback about an action and a result, not about the person.  As an example, one time I had a CFO whom I had asked to develop cost standards for one of our operations.  He did so, but they were not done correctly.  As a result, we were incurring unfavorable variances every month despite performing our production processes as defined.  I called him into my office and pointed that out.  I told him that we are incurring unfavorable manufacturing variances every month, and that the standards we are using apparently were not done correctly.  Then I asked him to tell me what he thought was wrong with those standards and how we should change them moving forward.  I made no mention of his or anyone else’s involvement in developing those standards.

By taking this approach, I focused on the problem and not the person.  He knew that those standards were standards that he had developed, and he knew that I knew it.  He did not need to hear anything more than the fact that they were wrong to get the point that he had made a mistake.   By focusing on the problem and not the person you move directly to corrective action without damaging their ego or self-esteem.  They can then focus on correcting the situation.  They will not feel that they have to defend themselves.  Saying to them that “the standards you developed are all wrong and are causing variances” carries with it the message that “they” did a bad job, that “they are not competent”.  Their response will be defensive, they will be less likely to hear the suggestions you give them, and they will be less likely to move forward quickly with correcting the situation.  They will be devoting time and energy to worrying about and repairing your impression of them; unproductive time.

Having said that, there will come times when it becomes clear that an employee is actually NOT able to perform a given set of tasks.  See the post on Managing Performance for tips on how to handle those situations.  http://www.scottneilson.com/?m=200902

Last point…Make giving feedback a personal matter between you and your employee.  I generally (not always) provide feedback, both positive as well as “constructive”, in private.  I call the person into my office and have a casual conversation about it.  Personally, I feel more comfortable that way anyway.  Funnily enough, I must say that giving feedback in this way makes for a very interesting scenario.  Whenever I ask someone to come into my office and I close the door behind them, they always assume that the end of the world is near and I am about to give them their last rites.  When I tell them that they did a good job with “X” or “Y” and what I liked about it, they always look surprised and say “but”, as if I am about to tell them all the things I did not like.  When I say, “no buts, nothing else, just a nice job on that”, they look surprised but pleased, and leave my office in a bit of shock but uplifted.

However, sometimes it serves a very useful purpose to give feedback in a more public setting.  For example, a positive stroke can send a message of credibility for an employee among his or her peers, and there may be a time when that is needed.  Likewise, “constructive” feedback for an individual may provide a lesson that is more broadly needed for a group of people.  In this case it is important to immediately and clearly frame that feedback as relevant for the whole group, not just an individual.  It may even require you to give other examples of similar behavior that quietly implicates others on the team and provides a broad lesson for the group.  In that way the one individual does not feel that he/she is being singled out in front of their peers, but broader feedback is being provided for the group. 

*****

There is a lot to giving feedback.  It is an important aspect of leadership, and one which you must be good at.  Like many other leadership skills it is not rocket science, but it does require developing an understanding of the concepts and applying them.  It requires practice.  It requires you to make it important.