For personal reasons, I'll be taking a week off from posting. See you next week.
Monday, April 18, 2022
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.
One of this blog's tenets of feedback is that feedback can be about any work behavior. When I discuss this with people who are new to the idea of frequent feedback, "any work behavior" is a common area of resistance. Surely, they argue, some things are simply expected. It would be BLANK to give feedback about such mundane things (fill in the blank with your choice: irrelevant, condescending, counter-productive, etc.).
When I am confronted with this point of view, I go through the usual explanations. The person may be picturing praise or punishment rather than feedback, which creates a completely different dynamic to the conversation. Part of the value of feedback is acknowledging that you as manager notice the employee's work, so there is value in mentioning the "obvious" things. Because feedback is about impacts, not just actions, some of the "obvious" things aren't so obvious after all.
I explain all these things. The easiest way to make the case, though, is to just show feedback in action. Here are 20 feedback examples. Judge for yourself whether they are worth giving to employees.
- When you are on time and ready to work every day, it makes my job and your coworkers' jobs a little easier. Not everyone does, and I end up worrying about those folks every time they're late. Knowing you're here and ready to go is one less worry, so thank you.
- When you are late to work, I worry. There's the concern that I'll have to make last-minute adjustments to the day's plan, which will cause slowdowns. And there's also that little part of me which worries something might have happened to you. Can you work on getting here on time every day?
- When you put real thought and energy into reporting, such as working on annual goals, it makes our planning more effective because you've already sorted out many details. Keep it up.
- When you don't put much thought into your reporting, such as not coming prepared with any ideas for annual goals, it makes our planning less effective because we have to start from square one during our conversation. Can you work on being more prepared in the future?
- When you emphasize to your team that changes always come with tweaking and playing around, like you did when rolling out the new supply chain process, it keeps staff from being nervous that they will be locked into a bad process. Nicely done.
- When you roll out change without addressing that there will be nuances and tweaks to make along the way, staff may end up feeling like they are locked into an imperfect first draft of a plan. Can you work on adding some of that language in the future?
- When you send emails that have clear suggested next steps, it moves the conversation forward. That's smart communication.
- When you send emails that don't provide a clear sense for your opinion on how to proceed, it can make the conversation stall. Can you work on being more action-oriented with your communication in the future?
- When you come to our one-on-ones with a robust list of topics, it tells me a few things. First, it is clear that you want to use our time together as effectively as possible. Second, you often end up covering several things on my list, which means we can get to bigger picture conversations more often. Well done!
- When you come to our one-on-ones every week with zero things to talk about, it suggests that you don't see any value in communicating with your manager. I know that is not the message you are trying to send, so can you work on it?
- When you come to me to discuss sensitive issues, like our conversation last week, it shows that you are willing to be candid and that you trust me to support you. I truly appreciate that.
- When you avoid mentioning issues until they are at a breaking point, like the confrontation that happened last week, it means we don't get the chance to solve problems when they're still small. Would you work on being more direct when there are potential issues on the horizon?
- When you take initiative for your own training, like reaching out to coworkers about shadowing on processes, it gets you up to speed that much faster and it shows that you're interested in doing the best job possible. Thank you for that.
- When you don't take any steps to get trained, it takes that much longer for you to get up to speed on the work. That makes more work for everyone, including you, in the long run. Can you work on that?
- When you keep the display area so immaculate, it bespeaks professionalism, and it is clear that the customers notice. Keep up the good work.
- When your display area is disorganized, it reads as unprofessional, and it is clear that the customers notice. Would you work on that?
- When you capitalize on local events, like developing that collaboration for the recent block party, it shows quick thinking. Well done!
- When you don't generate any new ideas for months at a time, it gives the impression that you're not putting much thought into the job. Can you work on it?
- When you discuss things with your staff using a "listening" mentality, I can tell that they feel heard. It is clear that communication strategy is helping them get on board with the things you say. Keep it up.
- When you spend so much more time talking than listening in discussions with your staff, it is clear from the looks on their faces that they do not feel heard. You may not realize it, but that communication strategy is creating resistance that you could avoid. Can you work on asking more open-ended questions and listening to their points?
Monday, April 11, 2022
Actions to take: Rate interview candidates on a question-by-question basis. Train yourself and encourage others to focus on factual information from a candidate's answer rather than anything stylistic about their answers. Develop or encourage your organization to develop rating scale descriptions that give meaningful guidance on how to rate.
Most organizations do not have an effective method for deciding who to hire at the end of the interview process. There are a variety of reasons why, not least among them is the historical context. It has only been in the last 30 years or so that the introduction of behavioral economics as a field of study started to reveal human tendency for bias and inability to make fully rational decisions. Prior to that, decisions were based on the subjective impression of the hiring manager, and the entire process was built to facilitate their choice. While plenty of organizations have begun to make changes that correct for these errors, we still have a long way to go.
Organizations have made strides in terms of codifying the interview process to ensure that it is consistent across candidates. "Clever" interview questions that were popular in the early 2000's are being replaced with scientifically validated behavioral interview questions. Hiring panels are being trained on implicit bias issues.
One area where we still have a long way to go, however, is our process for making the final decision.
Imagine an instructor grading final exams for a university course. They read the student's entire exam, think about it for a while, maybe chat with others who have read the entire exam, and then decide holistically on a score out of 100. "This one feels like a 92 out of 100, that one feels like an 85 out of 100." That sort of thing.
Would anyone consider this to be a fair assessment of the student's skill? Of course not. It's absurd on its face. Yet this is how a great many hiring managers make their hiring choices. It's worse, actually. Using our exam analogy, it would be more along the lines of the professor reading all the exams before deciding on a score for any of them. We go through all of the interviews. Then, only at the end, do we try to make an assessment of who did best.
The best, fairest, and most effective way to rate interview candidates is the same as the best, fairest, and most effective way to rate a final exam: do it item by item, with a clear rubric and criteria for grading, intentionally leaving out anything that is not explicitly job related such as your "feel" of the candidate. Again, think about how angry you would be at a professor who moderated scores based on their "feel" of the student's knowledge. We should be just as incensed by managers who operate by gut, or instinct, or their impression, or whatever else you want to call it. Yet, somehow, "Wow, I got great vibes from them" is a totally acceptable thing to say on an interview panel.
When I say you need to rate your candidates "item by item," Here is exactly what I mean:
- Have each interview panelist score the candidate's response to each question,
- Using a pre-defined rating scale, such as 1-5,
- Immediately after the candidate is finished with the question,
- Without speaking to or otherwise being influenced by the other panelists
As dry and procedural as it sounds, simply adding up the scores and selecting the highest scoring person is the best method for choosing who to hire. Virtually every other process accommodates or even encourages the decision to be influenced by irrelevant (aka biased) information. The fact is, our rating process should be more about actively pushing away some sources of information, not about gathering as much information as possible. More information is not better information. As we have talked about, this is a hard pill for some bosses to swallow. Nevertheless, it is true.
We stick to the simplest process, rating each question one at a time, to safeguard our decision from as much irrelevant information as possible.
(To everyone saying "But what about the human touch?" By all means, ask all the questions you like about teamwork or conflict resolution or any other interpersonal skill. Then rate the answers, not your brief impression of the person.)
Some of you are saying, "My organization has a scale, so I guess we're fine." You are probably not fine. It is not enough to merely have a scale. You need to train your interview panelists and hiring managers on exactly how to rate.
If you just tell people, “Rate the candidate’s answer on a scale of 1 to 5,” you will get all sorts of variation in how people use the scale. "5" for one person might be "3" for another. Many people will never rate anyone a 1 because there is a vague unease with giving a person the lowest score. I've seen this happen even when the candidate didn't have an answer at all—the rater gave them a 2 because the candidate "tried."
There is a second, bigger problem the occurs when you don't train on rating. In our post on why most interview question fail, we talked about how some questions end up soliciting good-sounding-but-irrelevant information. We explained that these questions fail because they reward people who speak well in interviews rather than those who do well on the job. Untrained raters will fall into this trap even with well-designed interview questions. They will give high ratings to people who speak eloquently, even if those people ultimately say nothing of substance in their answer.
You need to train yourself and others to look for materially important details about how the candidate did the work. Watch the answer for factual information. What exactly was the candidate responsible for? How exactly did they proceed in their example? What factors did they consider in their decision-making process? Is the way they acted similar to how you would want them to act in your organization? That is what matters, not how well they strung together their words. When I train on this, I will show recordings of answers to interview questions: one where the speaker is very on-the-ball and well spoken, but ultimately gives little or no information about their work; one where the speaker muddles through the answer but has real content about how they performed some aspect of a job. Before being trained, people invariably rate the first video higher than the second.
Your organization should create meaningful descriptions of each score. Most rating systems give about this level of detail: "Rate 1 to 5, where one is a poor answer and 5 is an excellent answer." This doesn't guide interviewers in any meaningful way. People have different notions about "poor" and "excellent." Give clear criteria about what constitutes a 1, what constitutes a 2, etc. to prevent the inconsistency.
Truly going the extra mile, an organization would be best served to create these descriptions for each type of question you will be asking during the interview. For instance, here is a rating description for questions that probe a candidate's problem solving.
Take a look at the level of detail in this rating description. It is clear when the candidate must be given the lowest score. Even your kindest-hearted interviewers will be compelled to give that score when appropriate with this level of guidance on how to rate. Same thing on the other end. There are specific criteria that must be met before the highest rating can be given. Will there still be variation among the raters? Some, yes. But if that's true for this rating system, imagine how useless a basic "rate 1 to 5" scale is.
A set of rating descriptions like this will make your interviewers far better at their jobs. They will be listening for whether or not the candidate answer meets these criteria, which means they will focus on the content of the candidate's answers, the factual information that meets or fails to meet the criteria. Because they will be focused on relevant information, there will be less room for biased or irrelevant information to influence hiring decisions. In short, your organization will hire better.
In our article about managers' overconfidence in hiring instincts, the capstone advice was to "develop and adhere to hiring processes that are specifically crafted to minimize bias and fallibility in human decision-making." Hopefully this post will be a start on your journey to more effective rating practices.
Monday, April 4, 2022
Actions to take: Recognize when you are overinvested in the outcomes of work issues or decisions. Stop yourself from rash actions or rash communications on the matter. Take big-picture preventative measures such as having other passions, as well as more immediate measures such as consulting colleagues on the specific issue.
Have you ever been so sure you are right about something that you would move mountains to convince everyone?
One time, I was in a branch manager's meeting for a large library system when the chain of command announced a major change to our organizational structure. They were adding additional management positions to the branches. Great news, as I was directly supervising 25 people at the time. However, we weren't taking a traditional approach, like adding an assistant manager or department managers. Rather, the positions under the branch manager would supervise a cross section of the library—some shelvers, some desk workers, and some professional librarians each. As they explained, "It will be as though each supervisor has their own mini-library."
I spent the remainder of the meeting in something akin to an adrenaline panic. I needed to change their minds about this plan. If I could come up with the right explanation, then surely they would see the problems that this kind of structure will cause. As soon as the meeting ended, I rushed to my boss to try to express my concerns. (I had not yet learned that there's no point in questioning decisions that are finalized.) Naturally, she brushed me off. Lots to do after any manager's meeting but especially one with an announcement this big.
After work, I called some friends to vent and game plan my next steps. I couldn't sleep that night. At the next one-on-one with my boss, I laid out a comprehensive explanation of the problems with this kind of structure. I talked about how it would cause mass confusion about who was responsible for what, decision-making be knee-capped, etc. etc. etc. She listened patiently and delicately brushed me off once again. Later, I did the same thing with her boss. Eventually, I had a sit-down meeting with the executive director of the entire library system. Each person kindly and patiently brushed off my concerns.
That week, the problem consumed me. I was up late every night unable to sleep. It was all I thought about. It was all I talked about with my spouse. I needed to help my organization avoid the crisis that I had decided would inevitably occur if we went through with the decision.
The organization went through with the decision. Of course we did. We already had gone through with the decision by the time I first heard about it. My worry, my mental energy, my passion about this issue only caused problems. It was a huge distraction from my day-to-day work, and it was time I could have been using to figure out how to implement the change as effectively as possible. It was a huge distraction and time-sink for the chain of command above me.
There is such a thing as too much passion for your job. There are times when your level of emotional investment is a problem, not an asset. Here is what to do instead:
- Accept the limitations of your role: This suggestion alone deserves its own blog entry. It is not your job to fix certain problems. It is not your job to make certain decisions. When you try to fight battles that don't take place on your turf, so to speak, you will only end up resentful at your lack of effectiveness. Further, those problems and decisions belong to someone. When you step in to "fix" them, you are showing a lack of respect and trust for those people (who are usually your superiors).
- Take the long view: Think about five years ago. Do you remember the big issue like this one from five years ago? If no, that should tell you something about how important this one is in the grand scheme of things. If yes, did all of your flailing and warning amount to anything? Even if you were ultimately proven to be right, I bet all your work and worry didn't change the outcome. Channel the patience of President Lincoln and remind yourself, "This, too, shall pass."
- Consult with more experienced colleagues: An obvious one, but sometimes we need reminders to do the obvious things. It is calming simply to hear another person say that they've been though similar circumstances and made it out alive. I guarantee that your more experienced colleagues know what you are feeling. They can talk you through it and help you see your way to the other side.
- Have other passions: Much of the problem with too much passion for the job comes from the fact that we can't think about anything else. If there is nothing for you to do about it, ruminating about a work issue is self-undermining. When you have other things to focus on, concerns about work recede into the background. Friends, family, video games, exercise, hobbies. Find anything that is engaging enough for you to commit your full mental energy to.
The dose makes the poison. Anything is toxic when you get too much of it. Passion for your work is no exception. When you find yourself too emotionally involved in a decision at work, step back and breathe. Give yourself several days before deciding to voice your opinion. Don't just think about the outcome you want to see. Rather, think about the outcome you are likely to see. Accept that acceptance may be the only realistic path forward.
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