Common Feedback Dilemmas

Now that you have the basics, let's talk about some of the complications that can arise.  Here are some of the most common questions I get about giving feedback to employees. 

Feedback Dilemma: Behavior allowed to slide up to now (by me)

My employee has been doing something for a while, and I haven't said anything before.  Can I still give them feedback even though I've let it slide until now?

Yes!  If something is affecting the individual's or the team's ability to be successful (or even just to be as effective as they could be), you should say something.  It may make the conversation easier if you start by acknowledging that you haven't said anything earlier. 

Feedback Dilemma: Behavior allowed to slide up to now (by my predecessor)

I'm the new manager of a team, and my predecessor allowed my employees to get away with X.  Can I tell them to stop doing X, even though they were allowed to do it for years?

You can, but it's a good idea to make sure you understand why it was allowed, what the reasons are for stopping it, and how much the employees care about it,  When you're leading a new team, there are often a lot of things you want to improve or change.  It's important to choose your battles wisely and focus on the things that have the biggest effect on the team's ability to be successful.  It's okay to "clamp down" or professionalize things, but make sure there's a good business case for doing so and not just your  personal preference.  If they've been doing it for years, it's not awful to let one more week go by while you get the lay of the land and decide whether X is really the most important thing for you to address right now.

Feedback Dilemma: Too many issues to address

I have an employee who does an okay job, but there are a lot of things he needs to do differently.  Where do I even start?

A great tip from Jurgen Appelo in Managing for Happiness is to prioritize feedback based on value, meaning the size of the impact.  So, if one of the things the employee does an okay job on is really, really important, mention that first.  If one of the problem areas is significantly hindering his ability to be successful or the team's ability to achieve its goals, start with that.  If at all possible, try to limit your initial feedback to just one or two big areas, and give the employee a defined time period for improvement.  Once progress has been made in those area, then you can start addressing the other, less significant areas.

In a case like this, it's also important to see if there is anything you can do differently to lessen the impact of the poor performance.  For example, if the employee is not doing a good job of alerting you when he encounters obstacles in his work, perhaps you need to schedule more frequent (but shorter) check-ins so that you can ask about progress earlier in the process.  If the employee keeps submitting work that is not up to standards, consider creating a checklist of common issues you keep seeing.  Whatever you do, don't just do it yourself, at least not more than once.  If the employee is not able to do the work, you need to take the time to address that as soon as possible so that he is not dragging down the whole team.

Feedback Dilemma: I didn't see it myself

I got second-hand feedback about my employee.  Can I give them feedback about something I haven't observed?

Absolutely.  You'll need to proceed carefully to ensure that the employee doesn't focus more on finding out who said it than on the behaviors they need to change.  What's important to convey to the employee is that, regardless of the validity of the feedback, the person's perception is what matters.  So if someone complained that the employee was abrasive with a customer, you don't need to get into a debate with the employee about whether or not what they said "counts" as abrasive.  Even if you personally think the person who passed along the feedback isn't being reasonable, it may still be worth talking to the employee about it because how the employee is perceived by others affects his success, even if the perception is off base.

Feedback Dilemma: Employee has a bad attitude

I have an employee who does her job really well, but she's got a terrible attitude.  Can I do anything about that, since her work is more than fine?

Yes, and you should.  An employee's work isn't just what he or she produces.  It's also the way he or she goes about producing it.  This employee may be exceeding on the "what" side, but performing poorly on the "how" side of the equation.  The Situation-Behavior-Impact model is particularly important in cases like this, because you need to avoid asking her to change her attitude.  What she needs to change are the observable behaviors (or lack thereof) that are contributing to a negative atmosphere.  Be very specific: "When Geoff suggested that we try a new approach with the client, you rolled your eyes and sighed loudly.  That affected the team negatively because Geoff stopped making suggestions, and others seemed reluctant to speak up as well."

Feedback Dilemma: Employee argues with my feedback

I have an employee who argues with me any time I try to give him feedback.  It makes me not want to bring anything up, ever!  But he really needs to correct some things.  What should I do?

This is a common issue with employees who are new to the workforce.  They haven't learned to see feedback as a helpful way to be more successful- it's more like a bad grade in school that needs to be changed so it won't affect their GPA.  If this is a recurring pattern, though, then the arguing is something you need to give him feedback about, too.  Sorry if that makes you feel even more reluctant, but it is important for the functioning of your team as well as the employee's long-term success.  If he's smart, he'll thank you for it later.  You can use the Situation-Behavior-Impact model for this as well:  "When I try to give you feedback, you disagree with me rather than listen to what I'm trying to convey to you.  That makes me reluctant to give you feedback, which makes it harder for the team be as successful as we could be." In this case, you may want to add additional context: "I need for you to listen to feedback without trying to debate with me.  Can you do that?"  If he starts arguing with you about the fact that he argues with you, that provides an opening for you to say, "This is the kind of response I am referring to.  I asked you to listen rather than argue, and you responded with an argument.  It's okay if you don't agree with the feedback.  What matters is whether you change your behavior.  If you make it difficult for me to give you feedback, you won't have the information you need to be as successful."

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