Blog Post 6-5-15

After All These Years, I Still Stink at Giving Feedback


The Q12, Gallup’s well known employee engagement survey, consistently shows the same two questions to be the lowest-scoring items across organizations in 116 countries:

• In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work
• In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress

After all our efforts in leadership development and management/supervisory training over the years, how can this be true? How can it still be so difficult? We can point to the discomfort giving feedback often causes; the fear of confrontation, or of hurting someone’s feelings, or of engaging in a contentious back-and-forth that produces no real behavioral change. In the case of positive feedback, we can point to task overload. But often there is also simply a lack of tools.

In earlier blogs, we’ve shared a model for giving feedback. These six steps, when followed, allow leaders to give feedback quickly, clearly, and respectfully. You should aim to get from step 1 to step 3 in less than a minute.

1. State your concern and the reason for it. “Mary, I’m concerned that you’ve been late for work often; this has caused Collin to have to cover for you when people need information from your area, and he doesn’t have time to focus on his own responsibilities in the morning.”

2. Describe the specific observation. Be sure to describe behavior, rather than putting a negative label on that behavior. “You were an hour late last Wednesday, and more than an hour late on Monday and Tuesday this week.”

3. Ask for reaction/feedback. Pause and ask why. Determine if the issue is role clarity, ability or willingness. Or is there perhaps a personal issue? “Is there anything that I should be aware of?”

4. Ask for a solution or provide a suggestion. “I understand you’ve been having trouble sleeping. Is there somewhere you can get help with that? Would you like a referral to our EAP?”

5. Develop an action plan for change. “I’d like to see you start arriving by 8:00 am consistently, and if you have an absolute emergency that prevents you from being on time, please call Collin and let him know what time you expect to arrive. That way he can let customers know when to call back.”

6. Express your support. “And if there’s anything I can do to help you, please let me know. I know it must be very difficult to be tired all the time.”

Perhaps the most important step is asking for a reaction, truly listening to the response, and accurately diagnosing the cause of the issue, rather than relying on the initial assumptions we made. If we assume an employee is making lots of mistakes on reports because s/he is careless and sloppy, and we don’t ask any questions, we may miss the important point that the employee lacks relevant data analysis skills and needs training. Or perhaps the employee believes it is a colleague’s responsibility to proofread the report and catch any errors in the data. The “fundamental attribution error” often causes us to assume that another person’s intentions are bad. Instead we need to be willing to question our assumptions and look at situational factors that may be causing the behavior.

If giving constructive employee feedback still seems challenging, remember you are giving your employees a gift. In the words of Thomas G. Crane, author of The Heart of Coaching, “Feedback is the primary way in which professional athletes learn about barriers that limit their performance…From athletes, we can learn to love feedback as a way of growing and developing to our full potential.”