“Tell me why you didn’t give Kyle any feedback about his job performance problems.”
“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
This exchange occurred during legal discovery in an unlawful termination lawsuit. Fed up with an employee’s ongoing failure to meet job requirements, the supervisor had fired him.
The employee believed his job performance was just fine and attributed his termination to discrimination because he was the oldest person in his department.
If you supervise others, talking to them—candidly, caringly, frequently—about their job performance is a non-negotiable must-have skill in your management toolkit.
I remember the first time I had to tell one of my employees that his job performance was missing the mark. I postponed the discussion probably a dozen times. The time lag only made me more and more uncomfortable and dashed my secret hopes that he could read my mind and would miraculously start doing a better job.
As the possibility of that miracle receded further and further, I asked a respected colleague for advice. He said all the delays signaled some fear on my part and asked me what I was afraid of.
“I’m afraid of hurting his feelings.”
“What will happen if his performance doesn’t get any better?”
“I’ll have to let him go.”
“What about his feelings then?”
Oh my, what a compelling insight!
My colleague reminded me that effective leaders talk frankly and often about performance—the good, the bad, the ugly—with their employees, and that those discussions come from a place of caring, not a place of belittlement or some forced obligation like a mandatory performance review form.
Managing the 4 F’s of feedback
The 4 F’s of effective performance management are fear, feelings, feedback, and the future.
When you supervisor others, you’re just as responsible for developing their job performance and skills as you are for production, budget, sales or whatever other metrics are used to assess your work output. Generally, we only learn where to improve when those areas are pointed out to us. To help your employees be all that they can be:
1) Give your employees regular, ongoing coaching and feedback about how they’re doing because their insights, growth and performance evolve over time. Don’t hoard feedback for annual review time. (I liken this behavior to being like a squirrel hoarding acorns for the winter!) Talk as soon as possible after an event occurs.
2) Be specific in describing in good work and what needs to improve feedback (high fives and otherwise) often so it becomes a normal practice for you to do and for your team to receive and respond.
- You need to be nicer to customers isn’t descriptive enough and is open to interpretation. Say instead, Smile and make eye contact when you greet customers. Use a friendly tone of voice and ask how you can help them. That feedback paints a much clearer picture of what performance you expect.
- Saying Good job! is good recognition yet it doesn’t give enough specificity to help develop particular skills and/or behaviors. Great job on that presentation to the boss! You had all your facts, had analyzed them well, had anticipated her objections and was able to deflect her pushback with appropriate humor…well done! See the difference?
- Deliver your feedback with good intent. Aim to leave self-respect and self-esteem intact. Making an employee feel small and devalued doesn’t mean you are a leader; it means you are a jerk.
3) Build a culture in which your employees give feedback to each other as well. There’s nothing that says that feedback can only come from the boss!
As for that employee who was my first “feedback guinea pig”—he thanked me for being upfront with him and went on to become a star performer.
What other tips do you have for giving authentic and meaningful feedback?
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