This article was originally published on Forbes.com, under Jeff Miller's Forbes Human Resources Council column.
When I stepped into my first management role, one employee on my new team was struggling. His performance was poor; he came in late — he even fell asleep at his desk. But when I fired him, he said something I've always remembered: "I know I'm not the best at this job, but there was a time where I really tried — and you never seemed to notice."
In psychology, we call this the sustaining expectations effect, a term from studying kids in the classroom. Research suggests teachers often respond to a student's behavior based on their expectations, rather than acknowledging a change in behavior. When teachers fail to recognize a show of good behavior from an often poorly behaving student, for example, the student reverts to their bad behavior.
The experience with the employee I managed taught me the importance of practicing consistent feedback on behavior. And in fact, research shows 98% of employees will be less engaged in their work when managers give limited or no feedback.
But giving feedback is no easy task for a variety of reasons. We might be afraid to upset the other person. In my case, I was concerned the employee might not be receptive to feedback because I was a new manager. Ever since, I've explored how to have feedback conversations that leave employees feeling empowered to achieve their goals, rather than hurt or frustrated. Here are four steps to follow:
1. Observe with both eyes open.
The first rule of good feedback is simple: You can only give feedback on what you see and hear. If one employee raises an issue they're having with a colleague, don't jump to give feedback to the colleague. Instead, observe them more closely to see for yourself.
Remember to be objective in your observations. Feedback based in personal bias is a recipe for the employee to take it personally. For example, if I heard that one of my employees was lazy and I observed her desk was a mess, I might perceive laziness. But I might be biased toward tidiness while, in reality, the employee is too busy to clean; she might even work better in the clutter.
To remain objective, I would look instead at whether (and how) her work is suffering compared to her norm. This would help me come up with a specific, work-related issue to raise with her — and give us something to have an objective, collaborative discussion around.
2. Ask yourself three questions before giving the feedback.
I like to call this next step — after observation and before delivering the feedback — the "check yourself before you wreck yourself" step. I notice managers often aren't prepared to deliver feedback, so the conversation is amorphous, and the employee feels deflated. Instead, take a moment to ask the following questions:
• Have I identified what I want to see change? If so, figure out how to communicate that in specific terms. "You seemed disengaged in our meeting today," is vague. Instead, identify the (objective) facts: "You seemed disengaged in our meeting today because you didn't participate in the conversation like you normally do." Now, the employee knows what behavior you're giving feedback about and how to adjust.
• What has this person's experience at work been in recent weeks and months? Behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum. There might be extenuating circumstances (a family issue, a major change in their team structure) to consider.
• Whose needs am I meeting with this feedback? Not all feedback that you feel compelled to give will be beneficial to the employee — sometimes, the impulse to give feedback might actually come from a place of frustration. It can be tough to tell the difference, so ask a trusted colleague for some perspective.
3. Build trust when giving feedback.
With steps one and two covered, you are prepared to give feedback. Still, it can be especially daunting if you don't have a great rapport with the employee. And likewise, giving feedback to someone you're very close to can be difficult. In these cases, start by establishing trust in the conversation.
For example, I was put into a management position above my friend, which created some tension and a lack of trust. He doubted my authority and my interest in supporting him. What helped to change the conversation was showing him I was invested in his goals by telling him when I gave feedback. I said: "I know you want to be promoted. I would like to invite you to receive some feedback that may help you achieve your goal," rather than, "Here is my feedback." This established trust and helped us have a good conversation — and in the end, it also helped us repair our relationship. Eventually, he was promoted and had his own team to manage.
4. Set actionable steps.
Giving feedback doesn't end with the delivery. Rather than saying, "Here's what you did, and here's what I want you do," talk about the different options for moving forward, and set clear action steps. Ask, "What do you think we can do?" and "What can you commit to, and when can we follow up on it?" If you're co-constructing goals this way, you've got a mutual buy-in from the person you're giving feedback to. When the person has made some of those changes, recognize and celebrate them.
The majority of employees report wanting more feedback. As a manager, ensure your feedback is consistent and follows these steps, and you'll be more likely to have productive conversations with employees about their performance — and start seeing real improvements. In fact, after you've been through the feedback process once or twice with an employee, they might start asking for your feedback before you even offer it.
Photo: rawpixel via Unsplash
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