Tip #646:  Giving Performance Feedback

“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”  Frank A. Clark

There are many different models for providing performance feedback. One very popular approach is the “sandwich” which has the manager begin with a positive statement, layer in discussion about the unsatisfactory performance, and end with another positive statement.

The “sandwich” approach is ostensibly easier for the manager because it begins with a positive statement. It is supposed to be easier for the employee as well for the very same reason.

However, presenters at a recent Institute for Neuroleadership conference pointed out that, despite 40 years of experience with managers using over 30 different performance feedback models, there has been little success.

Regardless of the model used, the manager is essentially telling the employee: “I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m going to try to find the most skillful way of communicating this to you so you don’t get defensive.”

The problem is that the employee is still likely to get upset and respond defensively. The perfectionist or workaholic employee may feel like a failure- and the disengaged employee may feel unfairly singled out. The struggling employee may feel defeated- and the overconfident employee may feel angry.

Dr. Robert Kagan, whose credentials include serving as the Educational Chair of the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at Harvard, suggests that performance feedback can be much more effective if managers take a different tack.

According to Dr. Kagan, performance feedback should be more about the manager’s experience as opposed to the manager being entitled, by positional superiority, to label the employee.

When couched in terms of the manager’s experience, the employee can’t say “no” to what the manager says.

For example, the manager may tell the employee: “You are a very bad communicator.” The employee can respond to this statement with “No, I’m not.”

Effective feedback would have the manager saying: “In yesterday’s meeting when you said so and so about such and such, I was very concerned about the negative impact it had on our client.”

What makes this performance feedback approach more effective is that the employee cannot argue with the manager’s experience.

The manager can then follow up the statement by asking an open question, such as: “How do you think the client felt after hearing x?”

This question requires the employee to assess the impact of his or her behavior from the client’s perspective. As such, it opens a more objective problem solving discussion.

Had the manager moved back into the “I’m right, you’re wrong” mindset, the follow up question might have been: “What were you thinking?!!!”

In that case, the employee would have had no alternative but to provide a defense.

How do you provide performance feedback so employees are engaged in problem solving rather than becoming defensive?

May your learning be sweet,


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