Most of us would rather have a root canal (without the Novocain) than give an employee feedback about poor performance, particularly when it relates to a behavior based issue. Yet, we will eagerly discuss or more accurately complain about these issues to colleagues, friends or family. So what stops us from providing feedback to the employee?
Clearly, identifying the performance issue isn’t the roadblock. Ask any group of co-workers or managers what the problem is with an underperforming employee and they usually can name it without hesitation:
- “You, mean Mr. Know-It-All? If he would ask for help instead of pretending he knows how to do everything maybe he would meet his deadlines.”
- “She stresses about everything. I just want to slip a valium in her diet coke.”
- “He stops at every hurdle!”
- “She’s an excuse expert.”
- “Oh, he will promise you anything, just don’t hold your breath waiting.”
So, why do we all steer clear of challenging performance conversations?
Why People Avoid Giving Difficult Feedback
Over the years we have heard many reasons for why people avoid or delay providing feedback. Here are some of the more common reasons:
- I don’t know what to say.
- The employee is due to retire in two years anyway…
- I’m worried about the employee’s reaction.
- What if I make things worse?
- This person has been here a long time and who am I to bring up the performance issue?
- What about legal ramifications?
- It will demotivate the employee.
- I hate conflict.
- Maybe the problem will fix itself
- I don’t think the employee is capable of changing.
- People can't change behavior.
- I don’t know what the solution to this performance issue is.
Even the most seasoned managers can come up with a million excuses for avoiding or putting off a difficult performance conversation. We believe the problem lies more with the method we traditionally use to provide feedback rather than with some shortcoming of the individual responsible for orchestrating the performance conversation.
The Traditional Method of Performance Feedback and Why it Doesn’t Work
The traditional method in which managers provide performance information to employees, usually referred to as "constructive criticism", is often the very reason we avoid or delay giving feedback in the first place.
Most of us believe we need to create a bullet-proof case revolving around a list of the employee’s shortcomings. 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?
3 Steps to Giving Hearable and Sayable Feedback
It is clear that the key reason managers avoid giving feedback is not because they don’t understand the problem but rather because they don’t know how to craft a message that is “sayable” and “hearable.” The Performance Continuum Feedback® Method (PCFM) is a straight forward approach to do just that.
The methodology helps you put the focus on the positive, desired performance rather than highlighting the current negative performance. It's the right approach when talking with an employee the first time about off-target performance. The assumption is that if the individual was aware of the expected performance he/she would work to meet expectations.
Step #1: Identify the Performance Issue
Identify the negative behavior that is holding the individual back – not a problem for most people. Then describe it in the opposite, positive terms. For example, if the employee lacks finesse when dealing with clients and behaves like a “bull in a china shop” the manager would ask for the employee to develop a more polished and professional style. For an employee that makes frequent mistakes, the manager would talk in terms of developing more accuracy. For the employee who chronically complains that everything is a problem but never offers any solutions, the manager might ask the employee to develop a problem solving approach.
Step #2: Be Specific about the Desired Change
It is important to get specific about what you mean by a “more polished and professional approach”, “more accuracy” or a “problem solving approach”. For example, “What I mean by ‘develop a problem solving approach’ is that when you first notice a problem that is preventing you from getting your job done I want you to first think through a solution and then approach me if it’s something you need my help with”.
Step #3: Describe the Reason for the Change (Importance)
Most people want to know why a change in performance is important. You'll want to explain to the employee the benefit of developing the performance area. First, ask yourself “What is the negative business impact of the current performance"?
In the case of the chronic complainer who never offers solutions, their behavior most likely creates negativity, wastes time and garners complaints from co-workers who are sick and tired of listening to this person drone on about what’s wrong. So, the “here’s why I’m asking you to focus on this” part of the message would sound something like this:
“The reason I want you to focus on solving problems is that people will notice and appreciate your ‘how do I make things better around here’ approach. This will make more constructive use of the time we have and it will bring more positive energy into the team”.
Notice how the message is still honest yet talks in terms of what WILL happen when the employee develops a problem solving approach.
These keys are the core of the Performance Continuum Feedback® Method, a step-by-step methodology designed to make anyone comfortable delivering even the most difficult feedback.
Talking in terms of the desired performance versus the current undesired performance serves two purposes:
Bypassing negative performance descriptions and the resulting negative employee reaction allows the employee to respond more positively; ultimately facilitating the move towards the solution phase of the discussion – the ultimate goal of feedback.
A simple rule of thumb is to provide the employee with at least two opportunities to receive the feedback and make progress on the issue. Only when it becomes clear that the employee is unwilling or unable to make progress should more extreme measures be used - such as disciplinary action or documented performance plans.