Monday, September 13, 2021

Feedback: Don't Tell Your Employees What to Do

Actions to take: Resist the impulse to tell employees how to change their behavior when you give them negative feedback. Stick to a generic "Can you work on it" type question. If the situation demands more than that, make it a conversation with the employee, not a lecture. 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.

You just watched your employee do something ineffective. Maybe they made some mistakes during a presentation that are obvious to you but not so obvious to a novice presenter. Maybe they are struggling to hit deadlines on a particular workflow. Maybe they think they're being enthusiastic about their opinions, but their coworkers feel like they are steamrolling. Seeing it from the outside, the issue is so obvious. The solution to the problem feels equally obvious to you.

Your impulse in these situations will be to give advice on how to do it better next time: "In the future, just do X, Y, and Z. That will make things go a lot better for you." This makes a kind of sense. With negative feedback, we are already telling them that we think they should change something about their work. The natural next step is to tell them exactly how they should change in order to improve. It feels like we're being helpful when we do this.

Unless your employee explicitly asks for it, resist this impulse! Outside of training situations, when you tell your employee exactly how fix an issue with their work, you are at high risk for micromanaging. There are a few reasons why this is the wrong tactic:

  1. The strategies you have for fixing it may be useless to that particular employee. Things that make sense to you may not click with them. Your directions about how to fix the problem are predicated on what would work for you. A strategy that would make you feel more organized might make an employee feel overwhelmed, or vice versa. When you tell employees how to fix an issue (without them having asked for it), you paint them into a corner. They can either use a strategy they know won't work for them, or they can disregard what the boss told them to do. Don't put your employees in that position.
  2. It beats up on the employee. When you are giving negative feedback, every sentence is precious. Every moment spent in that conversation is a moment where the employee's brain is shouting, "I messed up." You want your message to be simple and short. You violate both of those principles when you add specific details about how the employee needs to change.
  3. It removes the employee's autonomy. Good employees want to demonstrate their abilities. When we make mistakes, we want the opportunity to prove to our boss that we can do it better. Think about how you would react to your boss telling you to improve something. Do you want your hand held, your boss telling you exactly what you did wrong and exactly what to do differently? Or do you want them to assume you will be able to handle your own improvement? Most people want autonomy most of the time. An effective boss will make it clear that they are ready to help brainstorm solutions, but they will leave it to the employee to drive that conversation.

Instead of outlining a strict course of action, stick with the yes-no question. If you simply cannot leave it at that, make it a conversation (not a lecture) by asking them what they could do differently.

I realize this sounds like a subtle distinction. We can and must tell employees when their actions aren't as effective as they could be, but we are barred from telling them how to fix it? Managers deal in subtle differences. It is our lot. The sentences "Go tidy the front desk" and "Would you go tidy the front desk" only differ by two words. Those two words matter to many people. Those two words ease the social situation and lessen the dictatorial nature of the manager-employee relationship. 

It is the same here. Average bosses don't give feedback with any meaningful frequency. When they do, they go overboard. Better bosses recognize that frequent, small feedback is the most effective path. Part of "small" is letting the employee decide how best to improve.

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