Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Why We Ask Before Giving Feedback

Actions to take: Always ask your employee for their permission before giving feedback. Change your mindset about what feedback is. Think of it as advice to your employee, not instructions they must follow. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

In the first session of my personnel management course, I ask two questions. First, "How many of you like to be bossed around at work?" As you might imagine, the answer is "nobody." Second, "How many of you are willing to get guidance from your supervisor to do your job better, assuming they did it in a polite, respectful way?" Again, no surprise, the answer is "everybody." 

These are two perspectives on the same situation, but the difference is crucial. When an employee has a major success or major failure, and the average boss thinks to themselves, "It's my job to say something." They must make a judgment about the employee's work, to make it clear that they know what is going on. An employee comes in over an hour late for the 5th time. Other staff are talking. The boss can't pretend like it isn't a problem anymore. They call the employee into the office and say, "You've come in late 5 times now. If you do it again, you're fired." With this approach, it is impossible for the interaction to feel anything but authoritarian. The employee, who hasn't heard a single thing from there boss until this moment, can't help but feel unjustly bossed around (even if they know that they should come in on time). 

We need to change the whole mindset around how feedback fits into the manager-employee relationship. We need to stop thinking about feedback as a judgment about someone's work. We need to stop engaging in behaviors that make our employees feel "bossed around" when they get feedback. 

Feedback is not judgment. Feedback is advice.

Once you accept the premise that feedback is advice, it is obvious that you must ask before giving it. Think for a moment about advice generally. Do we "make" people take our advice in everyday life? Do we demand that people change based on our advice? Of course not. It is the same in a work environment. It is unprofessional to try forcing advice on someone, whatever your roles in the organization. If you use your power as a boss to force advice, it stops being advice. 

Since we are giving advice, it is only natural to ask a person if they're interested in getting it. We are removing the "bossing" part from the equation. They are under no obligation to take your advice. The mindset is that you are simply a person trying to help another person improve for the future. 

Let's return to our example of the late employee. The very first time they come in late, we say, "hey, are you willing to hear a little feedback on your work?" Assuming they say yes, we continue: "When you come in late, a couple things happen. It throws off work and others have to adjust their plans. People notice and get a little annoyed. Also, if it keeps happening, our attendance policy requires me to come down on you, which I don't want to do. Is this something you can work on?" We are not telling employees what they have to do. We are asking to give guidance about the impact their actions have, and we leave them the autonomy to decide what to do about it. 

Before wrapping, let's address an argument some managers have against asking. I have had bosses explain that they shouldn't need to ask. Their employees have a professional obligation to be ready and willing to hear feedback. Certainly, it is not as though your role as a manager doesn't exist here. It is your job to help your employees do their work better. It is their job to be open to your thoughts on how they can improve. That is part of being a professional, I agree completely. But it is delusional to think that translates to "My employees are always mentally and emotionally prepared to productively receive feedback." I ask those managers, "Have you never been distracted by something at work before? Have you never been in a place where you are unprepared to switch focus?" 

It is such a small thing to give your employees that option, and it is incredibly valuable in building trust and increasing the likelihood that they will take your feedback. There are many reasons to ask before giving feedback, and no credible reasons not to. Better bosses show their employees courtesy by asking before they give performance feedback.

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