Workplace Wisdom

You’ll Want to Try This Surprising Twist When You Give Feedback

Standard guidelines for performance feedback call for content that’s specific, behavioral rather than personal, consistent, and delivered immediately after the triggering situation. But I’d like to suggest an alternative approach.

If the behavior you’re trying to change occurs during an ongoing set of responsibilities, the feedback’s timing and positioning are the two most salient elements — although probably not in the way you were taught.

What Feedback Is All About

The point of performance feedback is to help the employee do better, not just to be explicit about what went wrong. So request or recommend specific adjustments in preparation for next time instead of simply correcting the employee after the event.

It’s All in the Timing

Telling employees what they did wrong without offering them the opportunity to try it again promptly seems unkind at best, and can stunt any forward movement or sense of personal efficacy. It also puts you in the role of judge and critic, not as a leader whose intervention leads to successful behavior change. So rather than stressing the actual correction of the imperfect event, focus on how to make the best job of the thing that is about to happen.

When you don’t have to correct an employee immediately, your stance can shift from what went wrong to what will work best. This pause will help you deliver your comments more positively: If you’re concentrating on improving performance rather than simply correcting what the employee did wrong, you won’t be emphasizing what’s wrong with the employee.

Positioning It Forward

Explain what the ideal behavior is rather than dwelling on the mistake. The point is to avoid having the employee think through or relive the inaccurate behavior while you’re critiquing it. Mentally replaying what happened can lead employees to reassure themselves that they really were on track, and you’re just being picky. They may defensively tell themselves — and you — that the circumstances warranted whatever they did.

So skip all that pain, along with any distraction from the actual improvement! Instead of phrasing your criticism in the “No, don’t” mode, try “Please do it like this,” so the employee can mentally rehearse the new, correct behavior. This way you’re not taking the employee to task for having done the incorrect thing. You and the employee should feel less like adversaries; you’ll minimize your direct, hierarchical power and maximize your influence as a source of knowledge and competence. You’ll operate as good collaborators, working together for the best result.

And consider these two crucial suggestions:

  • It’s particularly important to be able to describe how you want the thing done, not just the qualitative difference you’re after. For example, if a manager’s project specs haven’t been explicit enough, asking them to “Please write more clearly so others can understand better” is legitimate but ultimately unhelpful, because they don’t know what you mean or how to accomplish it. Asking the manager to “Please provide short, bulleted, step-by-step instructions that can be used as a checklist” is much more likely to get results.
  • Make sure to explain why the new way will be beneficial — to the employee, the customer, the audience of the new behavior, or any other party. If you can’t think of a persuasive reason why the new way is a tangible improvement over the old, think twice about asking the employee (or anyone else) to change.

What’s Hard About This Approach

This new approach is worth the effort but it isn’t all upside! It’s hard to give concrete specifics at the right interval before the employee needs to put them into action while providing enough context. It’s also hard to avoid carrying resentment or bad feeling about the employee during the interim because you haven’t unloaded your criticism.

And this approach is not perfect for all circumstances. Sometimes you need an employee to make a change immediately because they did something so wrong that its negative affects must be addressed promptly. Perhaps the interval between their unskillful performance and the next time they’ll be performing in the same function is too long. Or maybe you won’t be around to address the necessary improvements at the optimal time.

But I’d like you to try this approach when you can find an opportunity. By focusing on building positive impact in an upcoming situation rather than reviewing negative performance in the past, the employee may be more likely to hear you and apply the change. And please let me know how it goes!

Onward and upward,

LK

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