Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Bridge Between Feedback & Discipline

Actions to take: Give routine feedback a minimum of 3 times about the same issue before doing anything more advanced. Next, warn your employee that they are headed toward formal discipline before you start engaging in the formal discipline process. That warning needs to include three elements: 1) a reference to the number of prior feedback conversations, 2) a reminder that they committed to improvement at each of those conversations, 3) a clear statement that failure to improve will begin the formal discipline process. As with all tough conversations, your tone must communicate kindness and understanding, not anger or harshness.

For some things you give feedback about, it's fine if the employee doesn't take your advice. You should be giving feedback about all sorts of behaviors—anything that would make an employee more effective if they continued doing it, and anything that would make them more effective if they did it differently. Maybe your employee uses too much text on their PowerPoint slides. Their message would be more effective with a cleaner, more concise slide deck. You might give them feedback a few times, but you'll probably let it go if they never take you up on making that change. 

There are other areas where your employee really does need make a change.

Let's say your employee is a bit of a bully with their opinion. They don't see it that way, and they certainly wouldn't phrase it that way, but it is the case. An instance where this came through was during a recent staff meeting. One of your more timid employees offered a suggestion. As they were wrapping up their thoughts but before they actually stopped talking, your problem employee jumped in with, "No, that will never work." It shut down the timid employee's idea, and they didn't speak again for the entire meeting. 

Unlike wordy PowerPoint slides, this is a behavior needs improvement. With each individual instance, readers of this blog already know what to do. The question we are answering today is: if your employee is failing to make improvements, what happens next? 

Your company likely has an official disciplinary track including various levels of "warning" for the employee, culminating with termination if they fail to improve. The average manager will think, "I've tried feedback and it didn't work. Time to give them a Verbal Warning and file it with HR." 

If you do this, you are very likely to pay for it later in the process. You are jumping the gun and missing important steps. 

Before we talk about how to proceed, let's get clear on what counts as "enough" feedback. For anything that is not illegal, immoral, or clearly rule-breaking, you must give routine feedback an absolute minimum of 3 times about the same behavior. It will significantly improve your chances of long-term success if you give the same feedback 4 or 5 times before getting more serious. 

Here is the most important information in this post: The next step in the process is not formal discipline. The next step in the process is telling your employee that there is a new problem: failure to improve. This is the "bridge" from our post title. Next time your employee does the bully act with their opinion, you will give the usual advice, plus some more. It might sound like this: 

"[Give the feedback]...Can you work on it?...Thank you.

Before we wrap up, I need to say one more thing. This is now the sixth time I've given you feedback on this particular problem. Each time we talk about it, you say you will work on it. At this point, we are headed down the path toward a real problem. When someone on my team says they are going to do something, I need to know that they are following through.

You haven't followed through on your commitment to work on this. If we keep needing to have this conversation, I'm starting to worry that we're looking at the formal disciplinary track. We're not there yet, but we are getting close. When you say 'yes, I'll work on it' I need to know that you will follow through. Is that clear?"

There are three important elements that must be present in this feedback-to-discipline bridge:

  1. Reference the number of prior instances of feedback. Each individual piece of feedback is no big deal. They become big deal when there is a pattern of problematic behavior. You are establishing "this is now a pattern" when you reference prior feedback.
  2. Highlight that they have committed to improvement. Asking an employee, "can you work on it" after each piece of corrective feedback feels like a formality in the moment. Making that commitment really does assist the employee in flagging it as something to work on. Beyond that, you are essentially creating an assignment with "can you work on it." You are assigning them the task of improving the behavior. This goes a long way in demonstrating to HR that you have 1) discussed this with the employee before and 2) been clear with future expectations.
  3. Mention the formal discipline process. You absolutely must do this. The bridge between feedback and discipline is a warning call to your employee. You are making sure that the two of you are on the same page about the seriousness of the issue. If you are thinking about formal discipline and you don't mention it to the employee, you are not giving them an honest warning.

There are dire consequences to jumping into formal discipline without doing this warning bridge first. You will demolish any trust you have built up with this employee. You have previously established feedback as "just a bit of advice." Imagine your boss giving you a bit of advice on how to proceed effectively on something, then slapping you with formal discipline when you don't take their advice. Your conclusion is bound to be "it was never advice in the first place." The formal discipline process is already set up to put employees (and bosses) on the defensive, both parties getting lawyerly in how they communicate with each other. If you bait-and-switch your employee by going straight from feedback to formal discipline, they will be that much more inclined to clam up and fight you at every corner. At that point, their goal will be to prove you wrong rather than to improve.

As always, you are must deliver the warning bridge with kindness in your voice. The example quote as written sounds firm, even harsh. It is firm language. We need to be completely clear about the consequences of failure to improve. But it does not need to be harsh. Speak with concern, and speak with compassion. 

Average bosses can't see performance problems from their employee's perspective. They live with issues until they're so fed up that they want to fire the employee yesterday. All the while, they never truly communicate that there is a problem, so the employee is totally blindsided when the Verbal Warning arrives. Better bosses not only give feedback, they take it a step further. Better bosses let employees know before they engage in formal discipline in order to give their people a fair understanding of the situation. 

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