Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Feedback: "When you do X, It Has Y Impact"

Actions to take: Use the format "when you do X, it has Y impact" for virtually all feedback. Take care not to use past-tense language. Make the effort to come up with meaningful impacts that directly apply to your employees' behaviors. 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.

When we discussed feedback in my personnel management course this semester, I asked the class what things they would not give feedback about, what things are too banal or run-of-the-mill to be worth feedback. There was widespread agreement that coming in on time doesn't need feedback. It is a simple expectation of the job. Giving feedback on it would be meaningless at best and, at worst, would come off as patronizing. 

We discovered pretty quickly that the class was picturing praise, not feedback, when they came to this conclusion. I agreed that saying something like "Hey Ben, nice job for coming in on time" is worse than useless. Then I phrased it using the formula described in this blog "Hey Ben, when you come in on time so consistently, I know I can rely on you to be there when I need you. It's one less thing I have to worry about, and I appreciate it." The change in opinion from the class was immediate. Everyone agreed that that was worth saying and that they would want to hear something like that from their boss.

Using the phrase "when you do X, it has Y impact" changes how your words are perceived. I have had several staff members tell me they would rather not get positive feedback, almost offended at the idea, as if I thought they need to be coddled. Without exception, these employees responded with smiles, enthusiasm, and thanks any time I gave feedback in that format. Again, they had been picturing empty praise, not meaningful feedback.

Your words will be perceived differently because you are genuinely saying something different. Your words are not just praise. They add context to your employee's actions. They show the employee that you understand the value of their work--you are describing that value in the second half. They show that you are really paying attention to the outcomes your employees are achieving. And, above all, they communicate real information about what you want the employee to do more of in the future (or less, in the case of negative feedback). 

It takes some time to retrain your brain to think in this format.

"When you do X" is straightforward, though there are a few pitfalls. First, you've got to make sure your employee knows what behavior you are referring to. If has been long enough, you may need to give a few sentence of context to remind the employee of the situation. In general, don't try to give feedback on something that happened more than a week ago. Second, it is best to say "when you do X," not "when you did X." This is a small but important difference. We want to describe a category of behaviors that the employee engages in, not some single thing the employee did one time. "When you come in on time," "When you take notes during meetings," "When you keep your cool with angry customers." These are all things the employee does and will continue to do in the future. "When you came in late" already happened and there is no changing it. 

The second half of the phrase, "it has Y impact" is the heart of feedback. It is what the employee is missing. People know what they did, obviously. What they don’t know is how others interpret those actions. When you include an impact, you are giving them a “why," why they should keep doing what they are doing or why they should change. Given that feedback is advice, not instruction, it is respectful to explain yourself. When you just tell somebody to do or not to do something, you are using your power as their manager, being a little dictatorial. That's okay in a lot of cases. Giving people instructions is part of the job. But it is respectful to avoid leaning on that power when you can. When you add an impact, you're using a rationale to ask them to change (or keep it up) instead of leaning on "I'm the boss" to make them change (or keep it up).

I challenge you to come up with meaningful impacts for your employees' actions. Work to accurately describe the value they are adding with their positive actions and describe the issues they are creating with the actions they should change. To help you get started, here are a list of impacts that tend to apply to a broad range of staff behaviors. When you do X...

  • shows that you take your work seriously.
  • makes things easier for me.
  • makes things easier for the team.
  • ...I can tell that your coworkers appreciate it.
  • really adds to the customer's experience.
  • shows that you are following through on the plans we made.

Average bosses know they are supposed to give feedback. They throw a "good job" in wherever they can, thinking that's all there is to it. Better bosses understand that feedback is distinct from praise, and that the formula "when you do X, it has Y impact" is an extremely effective way to communicate meaningful feedback. 

Note: if you like this blog, please share it with peers and anyone else who may benefit from it.

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