Feedback is crucial.
It is necessary for aligning expectations, solving problems, improving performance, and developing talent – all the things that increase the bottom line.
But often, feedback doesn’t work.
In fact, more than half of your managers may not be having the difficult conversations needed to hold people accountable.
What’s the problem?
A survey of 750 HR professionals by Sibson Consulting and World at Work revealed that 63% of executives believe that the biggest challenge of performance management is managers’ unwillingness to have difficult conversations.
And this may be because when managers do deliver feedback, it is poorly received.
According to a study by Globoforce (2011), even when managers tackle these conversations with the best of intentions, employees are often left feeling resentful or discouraged – 55% of employees believe their review is inaccurate or unfair, and one in four say it is the thing they dread most in their working lives.
I work with companies to develop leadership and align culture. If a particular company’s management is struggling to hold its people accountable, I find it is usually due to poor feedback delivery and follow-through.
Here are five top reasons likely to keep a manager’s feedback from working:
1. The feedback isn’t timely.
I hear more dismay and resentment from employees who have just received their yearly evaluation. They cite being surprised and hurt at hearing for the first time a dissatisfaction with their performance dating back 12 months.
“Why did he wait so long to tell me?” asked one employee. “I feel like I’ve been judged for a year on something I could have fixed long ago.”
Another said, “I rectified that situation 10 months ago – why am I getting cited for it as though it’s still a problem?”
The answer to this is timely feedback. Teach your managers to address problem behavior quickly so that the employee in question can benefit most. Not only will the situation be fresh in their minds, they can also get on track to course-correcting much sooner. And instead of writing this up 12 months later as a problem, your manager can talk about the employee’s improved behavior.
2. The feedback doesn’t seem clear or relevant.
When addressing problem behavior, your manager needs to remember to:
a. Be specific about the behavior. It is not enough to say, “You need to stop acting like a drill sergeant,” which is a judgment and open to many interpretations. Instead, the manager must point out specifics about the person’s presence that require change. To use the drill sergeant illustration, is it language? Tone of voice? The closed or intimidating body language using folded arms, leaning into someone’s face, etc.?
b. Relate how the behavior has a negative business impact. Your manager needs to coach his employee – not just course-correct. Part of this is to relate the problem behavior to a negative impact on the business so that the employee can understand cause and effect.
For example, “When you use that harsh tone of voice, it can feel intimidating or offensive to others, which causes them to refrain from collaborating with you. If we don’t have a team that can work well together, we won’t be able to produce the results we need in order to support the business.”
3. The feedback doesn’t offer a clear picture of the desired behavior that should replace the current problem behavior.
Sometimes, employees just don’t want to change. But the more likely scenario is that they want to do well, but they simply don’t know how. Just because your manager has identified the problem behavior doesn’t mean the employee knows how to replace this with one that is acceptable.
Be sure your manager describes in detail the new behavior they want to see. For example, if an employee has been conveying disapproval or aloofness in meetings with body language, the manager should give a very specific behavioral alternative. For example, give details such as, “Instead of crossing your arms and leaning back during meetings, try leaning forward just a bit (which connotes interest), and keep your arms at your side. This will eliminate the appearance that you don’t care or that you disapprove of the message you are currently hearing.”
4. The employee doesn’t trust the person delivering the feedback.
This is a tough one. If your manager is perceived as not having the best interests of his employee in mind, the latter will not receive the feedback well, due to a lack of trust. If your manager has effectuated steps 1-3 above and is still not getting anywhere, it’s time for the manager to check in with a different question, such as, “Sandra, you and I have talked about your tendency to overlook deadlines, and you have pledged to correct this. Yet, the problem persists. Help me to understand what’s happening. Can you shed more light on this?”
This approach should reveal whether there is something else behind the lack of change, such as a basic resentment and feeling of unfairness on the part of the employee, or another problem of which the manager was unaware.
5. The employee’s identity is at stake.
It can happen that feedback simply doesn’t register because it threatens the employee’s sense of self.
Hearing feedback that doesn’t register with that sense of self can cause an employee to become defensive or feel overwhelmed and unable to respond. The employee may insist on disbelieving the feedback since they cannot “see” their behavior being a problem or having a negative impact.
A standoff will not be productive.
Instead, consider having your manager engage the employee in a series of small experiments as a way to coach the latter into more awareness and better management of self.
For example, if Max frequently ignores his fellow employees in the workplace, your manager can help him with a small, but focused goal to connect with each of them once daily. Have the manager ask Max to observe how his fellow employees react to him over the next few weeks and report back. Most likely, Max’s coworkers will begin to warm up to him and include him in more conversations. Debriefing with the manager will begin to help Max develop more awareness around how his lack of connectivity has adversely affected his work relationships – and a way to turn this around.
Teaching your managers the gift of honest and productive feedback is manifold. Far beyond outlining standards, it can provide your employees with a growth path that benefits them, their team, and your organization. Take charge of this process by modeling this with your executive team so that you can begin to integrate true accountability into your culture.
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.