Monday, January 31, 2022

Feedback: Far More Positive Than Negative

Actions to take: Give far more positive feedback than negative feedback. A ratio to shoot for is 5-to-1, even with poor performers. Do not underestimate positive feedback's ability to successfully guide employee behavior. 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.

Managers are problem-solvers. Those of us who don't come by it naturally get pushed into it. It makes sense why. We are imbued with the formal authority of the organization, so we make the call in tough situations. We carry over this mentality to most aspects of our work. We end up looking at our entire job as a series of "problems to be solved."

And when it comes to managing people, that's where we mess up. It is easy to focus on your employees' issues, the things that need to be fixed. You are in that problem-solving mode. The negatives are (often) the things that annoy you. The negatives are the things that other employees complain to you about. The negatives are things that might make you look bad to your boss. 

Because we're in this mindset, it can be easy to find ourselves giving a lot of negative feedback. It takes time to come up with feedback to give our employees. When we're busy (and who isn't), we give feedback on whatever comes to mind first—usually, the problems. 

Do not slip into this trap. Make sure you are finding time to give positive feedback. Much more positive feedback than negative feedback. If you need a goal to shoot for, 5-to-1 is often cited. Five times as much positive feedback as negative. It is fantastically important. Here are a few reasons why.

For feedback to be trusted, it must be accurate

This is true, of course, for each individual piece of feedback. If you give feedback based on misinformation, you'll seriously undermine your credibility.

It is also true in aggregate. When you sum up all the feedback you've given an employee, it must paint an accurate picture of your employee's work. If it doesn't, you have failed just as much as if you gave a completely unfounded piece of feedback. Most people are doing most things well. Even your worst employees, frankly, are doing more things right than wrong. There is a reason that 50% is a failing grade in school. 

Look at the feedback you've given over the past 6 months. When you review the sum of an employee's feedback, does it paint the picture of the employee that you know? If it doesn't look accurate to you, it doesn't feel accurate to your employees. They probably are not keeping a documented record of all the feedback you give them. But they have a sense for how often your feedback is positive and how often it is negative. 50-50 isn't good enough. After all, imagine if your boss thought you were only doing half of your work correctly.

Positive feedback takes far less time

I'm not talking about the feedback conversation itself. Positive or negative, giving feedback will take you less than a minute (when done correctly). 

However, it is much easier to give positive feedback, and it is much easier to receive positive feedback. With corrective feedback, there is a great deal more self-management that needs to happen in the preparation. Is the wording purely factual and 100% accurate? Am I in a good mood? Am I prepared to keep my tone neutral? Am I prepared to stay sympathetic to the employee while talking about this thing that frustrates me? That 10 second feedback conversation might take you 10 minutes to mentally work yourself up to do. 

The employee is going to have a similar mental journey after the fact. They will have the knee-jerk denial reaction. Then they will need to work through it and come out on the other side. You may be a perfect manager with a feather-light touch when it comes to feedback. You still can't fully erase the feeling that negative feedback means "you did something wrong." Your employee will take time process through it, and it will slow down other work.

Positive feedback doesn't require this time. People like receiving positive feedback, and most managers like (or like well enough) to give it. If you flub the wording a little, people will forgive in a way that they don't with negative feedback. Positive feedback generally doesn't require you to self-monitor your emotions or tone. After the fact, the employee may continue thinking about it, but not in a way that distracts them from other work. 

Quality diminishes when work goes unnoticed

At one of my jobs, every manager had to submit a monthly report of their activities and the activities of their department: highlights, important milestones, issues faced, that sort of thing. Early on, I poured a lot of work into these. I prided myself on giving my boss an accurate picture of both the successes and the challenges I was facing. She never mentioned the reports. As months went by, I spent less time on them, just doing enough to call it finished. After about 18 months, I stopped submitting them altogether. She never mentioned the reports. I was promoted, and she no longer supervised me. Only then did she say, "You know, I was pretty surprised when you stopped submitting your monthly reports. They really helped me know what was going on, and they're technically required. Other than that, your work was great." 

As I've said elsewhere in this blog: work that is not communicated is not finished. That goes for managers too. It is not enough to notice your employees' work. You must tell them you noticed, or they will assume that work isn't important. We're all busy. We don't have time to waste on unimportant things. Just like I stopped doing those reports, your employees will stop (or minimize their time on) work that isn't getting them positive feedback.

Wrap up

Positive feedback provides more guidance than we give it credit for. We fall into the trap of thinking that negative feedback is the "real" way to guide employees toward more effective work. We give positive feedback to sort of "pay our due" for giving negative. 

That thinking is totally inaccurate. In fact, aside from egregious errors, it is possible to successfully guide your employees' work using only positive feedback. If you've got an employee that shows up late sometimes, give positive feedback when they're on time. If you've got an employee that misses details, give positive feedback when they get the nuances right. Positive feedback literally tells employees, "Do more of this." Do not trick yourself into thinking that it is just praise.

Monday, January 24, 2022

One-on-Ones Resistance

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss. All posts about one-on-ones assume this strategy.

A 30-minute meeting is 1.25% of your time, assuming you work 40 hours per week. It is a drop in the bucket. Nevertheless, there are a great many organizations where a weekly one-on-one with your employees would be considered an absurd proposition. Here are three of the most common arguments people use to resist one-on-ones.

One-on-ones pull the employee away from "their work"

Whether you work in a highly functional organization or a dysfunctional one, there is too much work for the number of hours. We don't have time for a meeting every single week with no specific agenda or goal, just to "build the relationship." It's absurd to imagine.

My favorite version of this argument is that you, manager, don't have time for weekly one-on-ones. You've got 15 employees for goodness sake! That's 7.5 hours of your week, gone!! How can you possibly justify all that time spent? 

This argument is a lot of fun to challenge. Simply pull up notes from past a one-on-one and talk through each topic. Ask the nay-sayer "Was this one worth taking a few minutes to talk through? How about this one? And this one?..." Then go to the very next week with the very same employee. Invariably, they agree that there is no problem spending a few minutes on each individual topic. They agree that covering these details is highly relevant to helping the employee complete their work (therefore the conversation itself is part of "their work"). Then put the final nail in the coffin: this is a 30-minute meeting. A well-oiled weekly one-on-one will cover 8-10 topics a week for most fulltime employees. It is impossible to claim that 8-10 individual conversations would be more effective than getting it all sorted in a single 30-minute meeting.

The manager version of this argument is even more fun to respond to. What is the point of a manager, anyway? To make sure that the work gets done in a timely and effective fashion, right? To direct others' work, give feedback, coach them through any complexities they face, ensure changes are implemented smoothly, develop their abilities, check in on status of projects, etc. etc. Again, just turn to past one-on-one notes. Point out examples where all of this is happening every week under this management strategy. Challenge the nay-sayer to produce evidence that other managers are getting anywhere near this amount of managerial work done. (Bonus: we can also talk about outcomes. How is my department achieving goals relative to others? How many personnel issues come out of my department relative to others? How well do changes get implemented in my department relative to others?)

One-on-ones are "too formal"

As the argument goes, the employee and the manager could never have a meaningful conversation if they are locked in a scheduled, private meeting together. This feeling comes from all over the organization: the employee, the higher-ups, or the manager themselves. You might have this concern. You picture "calling the employee in" for a meeting versus just walking up to their desk to have a chat. Obviously, you think, the latter is going to lead to a more relaxed conversation. 

Our intuition tells us that line of thinking is correct. Empirically, it is simply wrong. First, employees never have completely relaxed conversations with their boss. Walking up to their desk to chat may feel casual to you. To them, it is an alarm bell as they mentally scramble to shift gears and try to anticipate whatever it is that you want ("Was I slacking off? Did I forget to do something? Is this going to take two minutes or twenty?" etc.).

Actually do weekly one-on-ones for a few months as this blog recommends rather than just imagining them in your head. When it comes to formality and employees keeping their guard up, you will see that the opposite is true. The weekly one-on-one is a rare opportunity for the employee to let the professional mask slip a bit and relax into their real self. Assuming, of course, you genuinely make the meetings about the relationship, genuinely spend half the meeting (or more) on whatever is important to them, genuinely reward their candor and show candor yourself.

The employee doesn't "need" them

This argument usually comes from an employee, and usually a tenured one. They've had a lot of ineffectual bosses who don't do much more than get in their way (though the employee would never say it that way). They'll assure you that, while the one-on-one is likely a wonderful thing for some employees, they are doing just fine. They know how to do their job. There's really nothing to discuss.

This argument is a polite way of saying, "I don't need to be managed." Average bosses find themselves giving into this argument because, put bluntly, they really can't figure out what they have to offer these employees. 

Do not let anyone tell you that your employees don't need to be managed. Even the highest achieving employees benefit enormously from regular check-ins with their boss. Let's imagine an extreme version of the situation: it is the perfect employee and you as boss have literally no guidance you can offer. The weekly one-on-one is nothing more than them letting you know the things they are doing and you letting them know they are on the right track.

This perfect-employee circumstance doesn't exist. But if it did, the one-on-one is still absolutely worth the time. Think about the benefits that are coming from even this stripped-down version of the meeting. The employee knows for certain that the boss supports their work. If things start to get scrutinized by higher-ups or other departments, they can say the boss has approved it. The employee's work is more effective because they can more forward quickly and with confidence. The boss knows what the employee is up to. They might hear of similar initiatives across the organization and be able to expand the employee's work and recognition—or even just do this in-department with other employees. The employee's work is more effective because it can be tied into departmental, organizational, or other employees' goals.

Wrap up

All of these arguments come from the same place. People make assumptions about how your weekly one-on-ones will go based on their (poor) past experience. Better bosses are constantly fighting the ghosts of average bosses. When you meet resistance to your one-on-ones plan, don't let it get to you, and don't let it convince you. Be prepared to calmly respond, explain their value, and be firm in your certainty that weekly one-on-ones are the single most effective way to manage your team.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Managing in a Crisis

Actions to take: When crisis hits, do more communicating, not less. Do not allow your employees to set the tone of your communication relationship—the impulse will be to avoid conversation. Instead, redouble your efforts to check in frequently and keep them updated. When changes occur, stick to Announce Before you Implement, though likely at an accelerated pace. 

In challenging times, people tend to clam up. We are a self-preserving bunch. We want to protect ourselves from danger. That instinct can go unnoticed when times are good, but it becomes abundantly obvious when times are tough. Speaking your mind is a vulnerable thing to do. When there is a crisis, whether it is a global pandemic, recession, or something negatively impacting your particular place of work, your staff will avoid putting themselves out there. That means they will be a lot less vocal about their thoughts, concerns, and good ideas for how to pull through.


When things are tough, you need just the opposite. We need clever ideas from staff. We need to hear concerns about aspects of the plan we hadn't considered. We need to know how well people are managing their emotions and when they need a break. Even though we know this, we don’t act like it. Our team is apt to do less communicating. When everything feels up in the air, people will be giving off the signal, “Leave me alone with my thoughts.” There is social pressure to give people what they want. It is especially present when times are tough. With everything going on, the least we can do is let them be, right?

We must overcome that social pressure. The fact is, that is not what people really want. More than anything, people in crisis want to reduce uncertainty. When times are truly challenging, you will hear things like, “I don’t even care what will happen next, I just want to know.” Leaving people to stew in their thoughts is the last thing you need. Hopefully, this thought appeals to both the people-oriented readers and the business-minded. It is both good for the person and good for the organization to stop employees from endless rumination.


We’ve established that people will start pulling back. Instead of letting them set the communication lead, you must set it. Things aren’t normal, and there is likely to be a new standard of communication. It could swing one way (less talking, drop our usual routine of one-on-ones, put our heads down) or the other (more communicating, getting even more candid about our concerns, touching base more frequently to get questions out in the open). 

You have the opportunity to set the new normal. Stop by your employees’ desks daily. If you are virtual, set up a daily phone call to say good morning and see what is on their minds. Update them on whatever you’ve learned in the past 24 hours. Update them even if you have no new information: “You know that thing we were talking about 2 days ago? I haven’t heard back yet from my boss, but I’m going to keep pinging her about it until we know what’s up.” Have some questions for them. Try to draw out their worries. Get a sense for how secure or insecure they are feeling. It will change day-by-day and week-by-week. You need to know at any given moment where each of your staff stand. That way, you have a sense of how they are going to react when the next change comes, and it inevitably will.


Speaking of changes, how is managing change different during a crisis? The answer: it is the same, just faster. In the Announce Before you Implement post, we outlined how people react to change and the best process for making change as smooth as possible. All of that still applies. It’s just that now, everyone is on their last nerve and you have less time to work through thoughts and feelings. Do the same ABI process to the extent that you can:

  1. Announce the change before it happens
  2. Get opinions on the change
  3. Respond to those opinions
  4. And finally, go live with the change

In a crisis, there are times when you will have to do it all in a single day. It might look like this:

  1. 8:00 am email, “At 10:30, let’s discuss the following. I want to hear your thoughts on this. [provide details of the change].”
  2. Have that 10:30 meeting. Ask the team how they would execute the change. Get concerns out in the open. You may be able to respond here, but it usually more effective to acknowledge and note concerns for future follow up.
  3. In the afternoon, do a 2nd email (good enough) or meeting (better). To prepare, think on the concerns your team brought up in the morning. Figure out how you will address them. If they are things you can’t address, follow up with your boss or make plans to. If you know your boss won’t get back to you in time, make plans for a work-around or interim solution.
  4. Go live with the change.

I recommend doing this even if the change already happened. You might find out on Tuesday that “effective Monday, we were supposed to switch to X method.” Fine. Not ideal, but fine. Still take the time to go through the ABI process. Even if the time between step 1 and step 2 is 30 minutes, give your team that 30 minutes to think about the change. Pick a “go live” time for your team, even if it’s just a few hours later. (Yes, I am telling you to be a little delinquent here. You’re a manager, and that means you get to pick what you’re in trouble for. I’d rather be in trouble for being a few hours late than for being ineffective.) In addition, address the elephant in the room: we have technically been doing it wrong based on this new communication. Make it equally clear that, in your eyes, the team is not at fault.

If you follow this process with confidence, your employees with see you as a bastion of stability. They will see that it is really not so complicated to swim with the changing tide (or whatever metaphor you prefer).

This is, of course, not meant to be a comprehensive plan to managing during stressful change. It is a quick reminder for what needs to be most present in your mind during times of upheaval.

Note from the author: if you enjoy this blog, please consider sharing your favorite posts with others.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Ask Behavioral Interview Questions

Actions to take: Aside from basic factual questions, such as scheduling, use exclusively behavioral interview questions during your hiring processes. 

Last week's post about how interview questions fail ended by describing two goals. Your interview questions need to: 1) separate good candidates from great candidates, rather than good from bad, and 2) give us real information about the candidate's on-the-job effectiveness rather than relying on the candidate's ability to sell themselves. 

Behavioral interview questions are the easiest, most reliable way to achieve these goals. With these questions, we ask a candidate to relate a specific experience that actually happened to them. It almost always starts "Tell me about a time when you…" Examples:

  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with the team's plan. What was the situation, what did you do, and how did it turn out?
  • Tell us about a time when you had to solve a complex problem on your own. What did you do, what resources did you consult, and what was the end result?
  • Tell me about a time when you had many competing priorities and not enough time. What challenges were you faced with, how did you navigate them, and what ultimately happened?

Behavioral interview questions are the only questions where we learn about candidate's actual work behaviors rather than the candidate's opinion of themselves. Virtually every other interview question hands the reins over to the candidate. How do you define "success"? What would you do about an angry customer?  What is your greatest strength? Rather than judging the candidate's effectiveness ourselves, these questions say to the candidate, "You judge your work, and then tell us about it." This kind of questioning doesn't screen for excellence. It screens for bravado. 

Behavioral questions succeed where others fail. Past behavior is highly predictive of future behavior. The way someone did something is likely to be similar to how they will do a similar thing in the future. This fact is well established in psychological literature. The effectiveness of behavioral interview questions is similarly well established. 

But you don't need scientific studies to understand the success of behavioral interview questions (though it is nice to have them). Just think about how you want the decision-making process to go during an interview. Do you want to hear a series of factual examples about the candidate's work, then judge for yourself how effective those behaviors would be in your work environment? Or do you want to let the candidate self-assess, then describe their opinions to you?

If you are not already using behavioral interview questions, there is good news. It is a simple matter to add them to your lineup. To create them from scratch, just take a list of the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the job, and form questions around the most important ones. For instance, independent problem solving might be important for the job. A behavioral question that screens for independent problem solving might run thus: "Tells us about a time when you had to make an important decision without guidance from superiors. What was the decision you faced, what factors did you consider, and what was the outcome?" 

You can also transform just about any interview question into a behavioral question with very little work. "What is your greatest strength?" becomes "Tell us about a time when you had to use your greatest strength at work. What was the situation, why was your strength particularly useful for that situation, and what was the result?"

When you shift to behavioral questions, your hiring process gets a lot easier. Gradations between candidates will become clear. Bad candidates' answers will lack content and the weakness will be obvious. Excellent candidates' answers will have a level of detail that can't be matched by average candidates. Excellent employees have a deeper understanding of their jobs and a more nuanced rationale for their on-the-job decisions. By asking behavioral interview question, you will be able to tease out those nuances. An easier hiring process means better hiring decisions, and better hiring decisions mean a stronger workforce.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Most Interview Questions Fail

As I've mentioned a few times, my background is mainly in public libraries. In libraries, a mission-critical stance is intellectual freedom. There is a phrase, “Libraries are for everyone.” When we're hiring people to work the front desk, we want to make sure that they will uphold that principle. Practically any front-desk position at any library will get asked some version of this question: "You are working at the service desk and a customer brings up books to check out. The content of these books is offensive to you because they are completely contrary to your political beliefs. What do you do?"

This is a useless question. It may look useful because it is about something useful. However, it is a failure.

There are two ways that interview questions fail: 1) all the candidates give roughly equivalent answers or 2) the question elicits answers that give you good-sounding-but-irrelevant information. 

Questions about a candidate's "philosophy of work" fall into the first category. These questions attempt to have the candidate describe their beliefs or morals regarding the work. That's what is going on at every library where I've worked. We want to know if the candidate will embody the principles we care about, so we do the first thing that comes to mind: we just ask. However, the answer to the question in the anecdote is obvious: keep your damn mouth shut and check out the books for the patron. Some people say it eloquently, and some people say it simply. But they all give the right answer.

Here are some more questions that fail in the first way:

  • What is your greatest strength/weakness?
  • What does great customer service mean to you?
  • Do you prefer to work on your own or on a team?
  • How would your previous manager/coworkers describe your work?

Questions like these are meant to differentiate good candidates from bad candidates. I understand the impulse to ask these questions. When we design these questions for our interview, we can very easily picture a good answer versus a bad answer. And that is why we fail.

We are starting from entirely the wrong premise. By the time we are at the interview stage, we are done separating the good from the bad. The bad are gone. We threw out their applications a long time ago. Every one of your candidates will give you a good enough answer to questions like these. You'll end up making your hiring decision based on tiny wording differences that don't really mean anything.

The second kind of failure is a bit more subtle. The questions don't have an obviously right answer like those in the first category. Nobody, the interview panel included, really knows what the right answer is. Or rather, any answer is the right answer as long as the candidate spins it the right way. Here are some questions that fail in the second way:

  • Why should we hire you?
  • Who was your favorite manager and why?
  • What kind of personality do you work best with and why?
  • What is your ideal company? 

The crux of the 2nd failure is that you end up being impressed by people who speak well in interviews rather than those who do well on the job. I'm going to level with you. If I answered any of these questions totally honestly, you would not hire me. These questions end up just being a test of how savvy the candidate is about white-collar work environments. For one, that is a bummer for a lot of reasons related to diversity and discrimination. For two, it is simply not relevant to a candidate's success at the actual work we're hiring them to do. 

We need interview questions that separate good candidates from great candidates, not good from bad. And we need interview questions interview questions that give us real information about the candidate's on-the-job effectiveness, not their ability to sell themselves. Next week's post will be about Behavioral Interview Questions.

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