Wednesday, June 23, 2021

More Reasons Why We Ask Before Giving Feedback

Actions to take: Ask your employees for their permission before giving performance feedback. Do it every time. 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.

It is a little uncomfortable to say, "Can I give you some feedback?" That is particularly true when you are just starting this new feedback method. It feels overly formal. It adds just a little bit of reminder that you are the boss and they are the employee. It can feel unnecessary, especially with positive feedback. For these reasons, some of you will continue to resist asking the question, despite our first post explaining the importance of asking before you give feedback. The crux of that post was that feedback is advice, and you cannot force advice onto a person.

For some readers, that truth is not enough to balance out the awkwardness of asking. Here are several more reasons, which will hopefully tip the scales for you.
  • It is a signal: A huge complaint employees have about their bosses is that they don't get clear instructions. They find out weeks later that the boss hinted this or that. The employee didn't pick up on the hint, went a different way, and got in trouble for it. We want our employees to know without a doubt when we are giving feedback. One of the the questions HR always probes for with problem employees is, "Did you explain expectations in a way the employee can understand?" Asking first erases any possibility of misunderstanding. "Can I give you some feedback" could not be more clear. Your employees will hear, "Hey, employee! I'm about to make a comment about your performance! You might want to pay close attention!"
  • It gives them power: Perhaps unintuitively, we want the boss to be exerting as little power as possible while giving advice. If you don't ask, then you are telling. Telling an employee what they did wrong inevitably makes them feel like they're in trouble. We don't want the employee thinking about getting in trouble. We want them thinking about what the work we just commented on, and how to do it better in the future. When you ask before giving feedback, you are getting away from the "boss telling" power dynamic a little bit by giving them control of the situation.  
  • It is polite: Here is a simple reason to ask: it is the polite thing to do. All day, we ask when we could technically tell. We ask an employee to help that customer, to put out the closing sign, to take the lead on small projects, etc. Yea, you can tell your employee to do these things and earn a reputation for being a dictatorial jackass. Or you can ask.
  • It is free: There is no downside to this act because employees virtually never say no. I have given thousands of pieces of feedback, possibly tens of thousands. I can recall twice in my career when an employee responded no when asked if I could give them feedback. Both times, it was because they were distracted with something important in the moment. They followed up the same day to find out what my feedback was. 
I hope you will agree, these many reasons to ask your employees before giving feedback far outweigh the slight awkwardness of asking the question. It is easier not to ask first. It is less work not to ask. It is also less effective not to ask. Do the more polite, effective thing. Ask your employees before giving feedback.

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