I expect that most of you reading this will have had a similar experience:
I was driving in typical bumper to bumper Boston traffic the other day when I acted completely against the local custom and decided to be nice and let another driver pull in front of me. Just as their car got fully into the lane I noticed the hand of the driver wave a couple times in front of their rear view mirror. At that moment I felt a smile come onto my face and I thought to myself, that was really nice of them, and especially, that was really nice of me. It left me feeling good about the whole interaction.
Same setting, 45 minutes later, after traveling a half mile down the road. I feel the impatience growing among my fellow commuters as cars switched lanes to find the fastest one. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small red car, to my right, driving like they wanted to ease out in front of me. Instead of blocking them out, as is the custom amongst us Boston drivers, I decided to let the car ease in front of me. After the driver settled into the lane I eagerly awaited that same friendly wave in front of the rear view mirror. I waited and waited and to my great disappointment the acknowledgement NEVER came. This left me feeling resentful, like I was a sucker for letting them in front of me, and made me vow to never ever let this happen again.
OK, I may be exaggerating just a bit. After the pain dulled from my kindness not having been recognized by the driver of the small red car it got me thinking about how powerful a simple gesture like, “Thank you” can be.
I often wonder if there is a person anywhere who has been overwhelmed by their boss, colleauges, friends or family with too many, “Thank you” gestures, too much positive recognition or too much positive feedback? More than likely a global manhunt would need to ensue to find this person.
Unfortunately, it’s more common to get feedback when there is a problem. But what if things were different for a moment. What if we received recognition about what’s going right, going well or what’s good about something or someone at work? What if we looked around to find good effort to acknowledge? What if each and every day we looked around in and out of the workplace to find the people who help make things happen, who do great work and who give extra effort so we can say, “Thank you”. Do you think they would be encouraged, inspired or cheered on? Do you think a thank you would help them want to do more of the same great work?
Coauthored with Michael Shipman http://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelshipman
The traditional method of providing constructive criticism/feedback would sound something like this:
"John, we need to talk about how things are going. You made some careless errors on the last several reports you handed in. You factored in the production labor costs incorrectly. I had to get other staff to rerun the numbers and as a result Tammy had to drop her own work to fix the mistakes you made. Now I feel I need to go through your month end reports with a fine tooth comb before I pass them onto the CFO, etc....".
"Ann, we need to have a discussion to clarify your role and responsibilities. I've noticed the following issues: You are missing deadlines, not keeping people in the loop when deadlines are not going to be met and not demonstrating a sense of urgency to get the press releases out on time. From my perspective it appears that you don't have good time management skills based on not accomplishing key tasks within specified timeframes. On top of all this your attitude seems really lax when you do miss deadlines. What is going on with you?..."
What the manager has said in the examples above seems accurate. Most managers have been taught to create a bullet-proof case revolving around a list of the employee's shortcomings. After all, you have to prove to the employee that they are underperforming. Is it any wonder that most feedback recipients get defensive and feedback providers find difficultly in achieving anything remotely resembling a productive outcome, never mind gaining agreement on what needs to change?
THROUGH THE EYES OF THE EMPLOYEE
Can you think back to a time when a manager talked to you about a performance issue and did so without any finesse at all? From the employee's perspective when their manager does initiate a performance discussion it can come across as finger pointing, fault finding and disciplinary. Poorly crafted and delivered messages can trigger feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness for the employee. This is particularly true if this is the first time the employee is hearing the information. The traditional approach to giving feedback often comes across in a harsh, "this is what is wrong with you" tone.
Expect a Defensive Reaction
Once employees are confronted with this type of information the natural response is to blame others, fixate on the details, make excuses, try to explain why the feedback is incorrect, etc. All of this adds up to an uncomfortable and often confrontational exchange between the manager and employee. Once a manager has been through this process once or twice it becomes easier to just avoid addressing employee performance issues altogether. Let's just say there is no real mystery for why managers tend to steer clear of giving feedback and why employees don't like being on the receiving end! The fact of the matter is that there is a better way to introduce feedback to employees.
The key is to use words to describe what you want to have happen.
I'm not sure where this quote originates so I cannot provide the proper credit, but I thought it was impactful: "A good leader can describe what successful performance looks like". If you are familiar with Marshall Goldsmith's work you're likely familiar with the term "feedforward", which means describing what you want to see for future. See this short video, How to Begin a Performance Conversation (and how not to), for specific language to introduce feedback in a helpful coaching type style.
I continually hear from employees who have just had their performance evaluation that it wasn't a valuable developmental experience. I then ask, "Did you learn what you do well and should continue doing and find out at least one thing you could be doing that would help you be more effective"? About 10% will answer yes to that question.
Formal Reviews Don't Always Surface the Most Important Information
Part of the problem is that most managers will avoid discussing performance issues that are related to behavior. It's more comfortable to talk about tangible job responsibilities, skills and goals. There may be a critical issue that is never brought up because the manager is afraid of your reaction or may lack the ability to translate it into a the right words.
When it comes right down to it you should be walking away with at least one clearly defined key developmental area needing additional focus.
An All Too Common Story
An employee approached me after one of my all employee workshops on how to ask for feedback to tell me this story. He had a rough time with his 2009 performance review. There were many things he needed to work on. About 4 months into the new performance cycle and diligently working to improve he asked his boss, "So, have you seen any progress, how do you think I'm doing?" His boss said, "You're doing better". End of conversation. Fast forward to 8 months later; time for the 2010 review. The employee said he was worried about another bad review. Of course he is. He received zero valuable feedback from his boss about what he was on track with and what needed additional focus.
If You Really Want to Know
If you really want to know where you stand here is my advice for how to get the most out of your performance evaluation.
Ask two key questions:
I'm really interested in what I should keep doing and that one thing that will help me be more effective in my role:
1. "Tell me one thing I'm doing well and should continue with."
2. "Tell me one thing that I could do that will help me be more effective."
What you are doing when you ask the "tell me the one thing that will help me be more effective" question is giving the feedback provider your permission to share what they otherwise might not feel comfortable talking about. Notice I didn't ask, "tell me about my greatest weakness". Why; because I don't want to hear about my deficiencies. I want to know what I can be doing for future. Phrasing the question to be future focused makes it more comfortable for your boss to be honest about what he/she really wants from you.
Ask these two questions more than just once per year. Ask monthly or quarterly or whenever you feel you need the information. That way you have time to work on any areas for development well in advance of a formal review. Equally important, you will know what you are doing well and build greater confidence.
Some questions can invite criticism. Let's compare and contrast two questions:
Bad Question: If I ask "what are my strengths and weaknesses?" I'm asking for criticism. It's almost like asking, "Tell me about my deficiencies". It's just not that helpful to give or get that kind of feedback.
Good/Better Question: "What do you consider one of my strengths and what one thing would help me be more effective in my role"? Phrasing the question this way asks the adviser to think forward as opposed to focusing on what's wrong with the person requesting the feedback. After all who wants to hear about their weaknesses? How we ask the question dictates the quality and helpfulness of the information we receive back.
Whenever I faciliate a program for a group and want feedback I ask, "What did you like about the session and what one thing would have made it more effective". Notice how asking, "what would have made it more effective" is different than what didn't go well- I'm asking for what could have happened rather than pointing out a problem- it then feels like advise as opposed to criticism.
The "One Thing"
Asking for one thing helps the adviser narrow down just the one key thought they have (key word being "one"). Why one thing? As the feedback receiver it can be overwhelming to receive too much information; plus people are busy and although they may want to go into more detail many don't have the time due to the pace and demands of today's 200 mph world. Keeping it to the "one thing" makes the information more focused and impactful.