Advice for Employers – Guest Column

Is Providing Performance Feedback Foolish? – Part 2

By Susan Sterritt Meyer  |   Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), MS, BS, BA. Meyer helps individuals and companies craft credible, image-enhancing communications. She served nine years in the Army Reserve, with two activations. She devoted more than 20 years of her career to management positions in human resources, and now uses her expertise to teach, coach, and develop leaders.

Published in the May/June 2011 issue of print Search & Employ®

In Part 1, I suggested that delivering poorly planned performance feedback is foolish and avoidable. Assuming that you have recognized the merit of the three key findings from the study I shared in Part 1, you can be proactive in making the appraisal meeting work for you, rather than against you. Adopting these ideas reduces the chance of triggering resistance to your feedback.

1. Yap Less. Do not slam the door by subjecting employees to your GASS (Great American Supervisory Soliloquy.) This may seem paradoxical since you are the one giving feedback, but there are still things you need to discover. Use the discussion, in part, to get at the root of any performance challenges employees still face. Learn what each employee is thinking and feeling so you can do your part in clearing performance obstacles from his or her path. Drawing out, and then listening carefully to what employees say, yields so many benefits. It not only enables you to determine your next steps, but also helps you keep your feedback viable and credible. And your active listening builds relationship since it is a supreme demonstration of courtesy and respect.

You can expect to talk too much if you are nervous. Just remember that it is easier to take the upfront time to prepare properly than to waste countless interactions later trying to repair the resultant damage.

2. Yap Right. Do you simply alternate between two evils — talking non-stop and interrogation? Borrow from the world of the best interviewers by deliberately inserting pauses and silence, and switch to a sound conversational style. While you would unconsciously do this in casual conversations in other circumstances, these skills fly out the window in performance discussions.

Eliminate the Inquisition feel of question-response, question-response, question-response.  Replace it with this pattern: your question, employee response, your comment on the response, three-second pause to give the employee a chance to expound further, then after the explanation, another pause before commenting or moving to the next question. Although the silence may feel uncomfortable or passive at first, it allows you to engage your brain before your mouth. Marketing research shows that those who pause before answering are perceived to be more intelligent. This simple alteration can make the difference between employee resistance and engagement in the meeting.

Why employ this technique? It triggers more spontaneous information because it leads to employees’ elaboration, which in turn allows you to understand their often mysterious, otherwise unfathomable points of view. You can also modify this technique to tactfully interrupt an employee’s VVS (verbal vomiting session) by interjecting a comment about what s/he is saying, then skip the pause and redirect the employee with a different question back on your agenda. And when your best performers are bemoaning their lack of perfection, use the targeted comment to help them get a more realistic view of what they often see as disappointing performance. Refocus them on positives by not letting them unduly overvalue any negative information they are sharing about themselves. And finally, engaging employees with this technique allows you to maintain control of a discussion while recognizing an employee’s strong feelings about a topic.

3. Yap in Specifics. Standards shift as players change, equipment changes, customers change, businesses grow.  Sometimes you are insensitive to the magnitude of the shift because it is gradual and occurs almost imperceptibly, or your eye is simply elsewhere. Performance feedback can start at the macro view, but must funnel down to boots-on-the-ground specificity to be useful. If the employee can’t readily answer these questions after receiving formal performance feedback, the session was foolish: “If I were performing to standard, how would I know it?” or “What does ‘consistently meets or exceeds expectations’ look like in my job now?” Vague commentary such as, “You need to be more of a team player” that is not followed by specific examples of behavior and remedies will simply lead to more of the inferior performance.

4. Yap about Things That Actually Matter. Do not dig up inconsequential incidents for criticism to keep a rating down or fill up spaces on a form. One of the quickest ways to alienate star performers is to state that “nobody can be awarded a top score in performance measure because that would imply there is no room for improvement, and everyone can improve.” This defective corporate thinking leads supervisors to struggle to find flaws where even angels tread, ultimately discouraging and infuriating their best employees. The implications are clear: if your employees can’t earn a “5” on a scale of 1-5, your company is not recruiting, compensating, managing or mentoring well. Now that you have expressed that you expect less from people or that the bar will constantly be raised out of reach, remove “regularly exceeds expectations” from the form because no one will be willing to give you that level of performance. Data from exit interviews along with anecdotal evidence suggests that this is perhaps the height of foolhardy thinking, causing immeasurable damage to engagement and commitment, and causing turnover of the very employees your company needs most.

About the Author

This article was written by Jay Myers