Why put yourself through the agony of giving performance feedback when 1) the problem really isn’t very bad, 2) she’s probably not going to change anyway, 3) he’ll just get upset and create new negative consequences when he acts out, and 4) there’s no huge negative impact at the moment and other stuff needs to get done right now?
Whether you’re giving feedback as part of a coaching process, or as part of a performance appraisal, you do it because you want things — and people — to work better. You do it to minimize the bad outcomes that can occur whenever an ineffective or inappropriate behavior goes uncorrected (the negative impact of the incorrect action itself).
You also provide feedback because changing the behavior in the future will be harder once another link has been forged in that individual’s “behavioral chain.” What’s more, you don’t want other employees to either adopt the unsuccessful behavior in the belief that it’s okay (since you haven’t corrected it) or to lose respect for management because they see damaging behavior being tolerated.
On the positive side, you give feedback to ensure that all the activity in your operation is geared toward increasing customer satisfaction. And you do it because a planned, matter-of-fact process for delivering information about performance helps people know where they stand and what’s expected of them — and creates a consistent opportunity for praise. Over time, feedback becomes one of the drivers of improved customer care, individual performance development, and consistent organizational growth.
WHAT IS IT ANYWAY?
There’s no question that feedback encompasses both complimentary and critical commentary, but we often forget that it can be a tool for getting employees pumped up about their good performance, or back on the right track if they’ve strayed a little. We usually think of it as negative, as if it were primarily about pointing out inadequacies.
This is really unfortunate, because when employees need critical feedback, it’s much more likely to be the organization’s fault than theirs. In most cases, either they weren’t trained completely and successfully, their job responsibilities or work methods have changed, or they’re responding to their perceptions about the environment and how they’re being treated.
Well-structured performance feedback creates both an opportunity for change (“We really need you to handle these kinds of things differently so that we’re always providing the best possible care to customers”) and a road map for change (“Here are the specific things I need you to do differently, and here are the specific ways I want you to do them”). Change is always hard; typically, a performance change requires change in both ideas and behaviors.
To create the changed idea, you start by giving the employee evidence or descriptions of the demonstrated behavior, both the more desirable behavior and the gaps or variances between the two. It can help to explain why the demonstrated behavior isn’t considered successful and the negative impact it creates on others, on the subject herself, or on the organization overall. Explaining why the desired behavior is preferable helps the subject convince herself that there is a value to trying to make the change. This sense of value and purpose is crucial to generating and sustaining the new behavior — even if it is only to keep you happy (or quiet).
Say, for example, you have a rep who doesn’t ask for the source code consistently when he’s taking an order. Start from the premise that he doesn’t recognize the value to the business of collecting source codes, and that you’ll need to explain how the accurate capture of these codes can translates into more customers and more orders and, therefore, into more and better job security and opportunity for him.
Then you have to think about how to conduct the conversation. It’s never productive for the employee to feel singled out and picked on, which is the likely outcome if you just hammer on everything that’s not perfect. It’s a lot easier for us to notice problems and mistakes because they’re out of the ordinary. It’s harder to see regular good performance, which can just fade into the background. So it helps to work from strengths whenever you can.
That doesn’t mean using the traditional “supervisor’s sandwich” in which you start with a compliment, then hit the criticism, and then close with another positive item as if the subject won’t feel the sting in the middle. Not only does the sandwich not muffle the hurt — it may not make the need for action clear enough. The subject is waiting to hear the negative anyway, so has trouble taking in the positive — or the positive is ruined when the negative shows up.
The other difficulty with the “sandwich” is that our positive qualities tend to be relatively consistent over a long period of time, and there aren’t usually many new ones that develop. New mistakes or problems crop up periodically, as do old ones that you might not have corrected originally because they weren’t urgent or a priority at the time. So the outside of the sandwich gets progressively staler and less appealing over time and the filling just keeps on changing and expanding.
Working from strengths means framing your comments around what’s realistic for this person. Maybe someone who handles replenishment in the distribution center tends to replace items in the adjacent picking location instead of the correct location because the correct location appears full. She’s also a quick worker and always asks for extra assignments when she completes her replenishing duties.
If you were referencing her strengths, you could let her know that, “Stacy, you’re really a fast worker and I appreciate the way you support the team by looking for extra assignments. It’s clear that you want to contribute. You could help us even more if we could reduce our errors, the ones that come from mispicks when the picking locations are stocked incorrectly. I know you don’t like to slow down and lose your momentum when it looks like the locations are full, but I really need you to stop and note the problem and report it to inventory control, so they can check why the locations would be full, and then put the merchandise that doesn’t fit into secondary stock so we know where it is. This way we’re less likely to make an error that would disappoint the customer, and over time, we’ll have a better shot at getting our quantities right too, so you won’t be confronted with full bins so often.”
THE SUBJECT NEEDS TO SPEAK
Because we want to be clear and authoritative, sometimes we forget to take the time and effort to understand the employee’s perceptions of her own performance. It’s important to remember that feedback is not the same as direction, not just a set of instructions, but includes explanations to change the subject’s ideas as well as behavior. Issuing directions and walking away may feel quick and definitive, but it is unlikely to accomplish the desired changes because it does not take the employee’s reactions into account.
So determine whether the subject recognizes her own behavior and the difference between the two and probe for her view of the events and context. Make clear that you want to understand her perspective. Verify that you understood her points and concerns accurately — or dig a little deeper to get to them. Repeat back her specific complaints or concerns to demonstrate your understanding, and give her the opportunity and permission to correct your expression of her views.
Remember our rep who wasn’t asking for source codes? It may turn out that he avoided the question because he felt it was nonessential and annoying to customers. His admission gives you the opportunity not only to set him straight about the importance of source codes, but also to help him rehearse alternative positionings so he can settle on one that is comfortable enough to use consistently.
When the employee feels you were respectful and understood his views, even if you didn’t agree with him, he is more likely to recognize that you have appropriate reasons for wanting the desired behavior and is more likely to try to produce it, instead of being defensive or unyielding or even passive-aggressive (agreeing with you in the moment and then acting as if your conversation never happened).
You’ll need to ask for the employee’s commitment to use the new behavior, which can be as simple and straightforward as, “So will it be okay with you to ask the question that way?” Or, if it’s a complex matter, you may first need to ask what support, help, or continued guidance is necessary to help the subject be successful. You can also ask questions about how circumstances could have been handled better from the start; this will help you learn from the interaction too.
Say an experienced rep stops offering upsells regularly. A discussion about what has changed in her sense of her calls, rather than just a direction to pick up the number of offers, may uncover anything from her analysis of a poor set of product selections to her concern about customers’ growing dissatisfaction with backorders.
Your commitment to addressing the underlying issues, and your encouragement to her to keep doing her best while the problems are being resolved, are likely to strengthen both the upsell rate and the employee’s sense of satisfaction with your relationship.
Over time you’ll get more comfortable with this style of feedback and you’ll start to think of it as just a conversation about work and what needs to be done. If the employee’s performance does not change, does not improve, then you may have to shift from developmental feedback to corrective action, a more stringent and rule-based form of discussion, meant to let the employee know that she’s approaching serious consequences. Prompt and judicious use of performance feedback helps to nip that sort of thing in the bud.
As for those reasons you felt resistant to giving employees feedback in the first place? You may still feel them. But you won’t worry about them so much, and your operation’s results will certainly improve.
Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based Liz Kislik & Associates, a management and customer service consultancy.