Actions to take: In almost all cases, stick to the typical feedback formula. When you need to prompt the employee to think critically about negative feedback, change the final question to "What could you do differently?" Keep the ensuing conversation short, and avoid spoon-feeding solutions to your employee.
Better-boss.com 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.
I start every feedback post on this blog with a blurb in italics that describes the 3-step feedback formula we recommend here at better-boss. It's right there above this paragraph. Those three steps have appeared over a dozen times now. In today's post, we are going to talk about changing step three.
With negative feedback, we typically ask a yes-or-no question to cap off feedback: "Can I give you some feedback? When you turn your back to the audience while presenting, it makes it hard to hear, and some of the meaning gets lost. Can you work on that?" The employee just gives a quick yes, and the conversation is over.
We do it this way for a couple reasons. First, feedback is meant to be small, so we want to keep the conversation small. No need to dwell on something that isn't a big deal, right? Second, feedback (negative feedback especially), is an emotional hit, despite our best efforts to keep it casual. It is a fact that your employee's heart rate is going to go up a little, their mind will be racing a little, when they get negative feedback. If you try to engage in further conversation about the feedback, it is usually unproductive. A person just isn't in a good mental state for calm, rational problem-solving immediately after feedback.
There will be times in your managerial career where your instincts tell you that the normal yes-or-no question isn't quite enough. Maybe your employee has been blasé and ignored feedback in the past. Maybe the feedback is a bit nuanced, and it isn't obvious what the employee needs to do differently. Maybe you've got an employee who craves more coaching and wants to be led more explicitly.
For times where it makes sense to do a little bit more with feedback, change step three in the formula. Extend the conversation by asking them what they could do differently rather than simply asking them to do it differently.
"Can I give you some feedback? When you turn your back to the audience while presenting, it makes it hard to hear, and some of the meaning gets lost. What could you do differently to fix it for next time?" This change pushes your employees to engage with the problem directly. You start a dialogue about solving the problem then and there. Let them do most of the talking. Your half of the conversation should mainly be a few prompting questions.
Do not spoon-feed solutions to your employees. The goal of this change is to get your employees to actively engage with negative feedback, not to fix this particular problem. Assuming they give you any kind of thoughtful answer (e.g. something more than just "I guess I'll look at the audience more" in response to our example feedback), agree that it sounds worth trying and move on. Even with this change to the feedback formula, feedback should not be more than a minute or two at the most.
This change in the formula is perfect for when you find yourself giving the same feedback to someone the third or fourth time. When employees fail to fix problems after negative feedback, the reason is almost always unintentional. We often think, "Okay, I'll fix it" and assume that's enough to make us remember to do better next time. But it is difficult to rewire those neurons when a habit has set in. "What could you do differently" = "You need to take a minute and actually come up with a plan for fixing this, not just assume it will fix itself because you want it to."
To be clear, we all fix problems just by saying, "I'll do it better next time." It often works. If you rarely forget your keys, then forget them once, you can fix that problem simply by setting your intention not to forget them again. But if you frequently forget your keys, you probably need to come up with a plan for changing your behavior before the problem will be solved. This change to the feedback formula helps an employee make that plan.
99 times out of 100, the standard feedback formula is the right choice. When you need to get your employee to engage with the feedback a little more, "What could you do differently?" is the quickest, best way to do it. If you try it out, feel free tell me how it goes. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.