Feedback: Keys to the Manager’s Mind

I recently had a conversation with a young manager who was focused on improving his team’s work quality.

He was frustrated that some of his employees weren’t performing as well as he expected. I asked him what he was doing to help those employees perform better, and he responded that he just expected them to get better with more time and experience. He had assumed his team members knew that they were doing sub-standard work, but really it was him who failed to give them feedback.

This is a common scenario, especially with newer managers. “Why aren’t my employees performing well?” Because you haven’t told them that they’re not. Learning, even at its most basic level, requires feedback.

Many of us are afraid to say negative things to others, especially about work quality. Others may simply not know how to give constructive feedback. Regardless of which category applies, here are five tips that can help everyone provide good feedback.

1. Keep your goals in mind

Why are you giving feedback? Make sure your feedback relates to that purpose. Determine what your ideal outcome is, and form your communication around that. For example, if you want me to stop violating a set policy, don’t just tell me that I’ve been breaking the rules – that doesn’t fully achieve your goal. Instead, tell me about the policy and how I can get back on track to follow it.

Venting and blowing off steam is pseudo-feedback that should be avoided, as it has no productive purpose other than trying to make you feel better. Have a goal and give feedback that actually works towards that result.

2. Be direct

When giving feedback, get to the point quickly. It may be appealing to add filler to the conversation to “soften the blow” of constructive criticism, but employees can see through the fluff. It will be a better use of time to say your piece and move on. Save the small talk for the break room, and avoid passive language.

Bad example: “Everyone needs to pick the pace with getting in those reports on time. I’m sure you’ve seen how things have been slowing down lately.”  (a passive observation, not a direct request)

Good example: “Recently you have been late with submitting your reports. I need you to turn those in on time from now on.” (an active request directed at the person.

3. Give your feedback immediately

Don’t wait to give feedback. As soon as you notice the need to communicate, do it. The more time you let pass, the less impact your feedback has. For example, if I come in late to work, tell me that it is unacceptable as soon as I come in, versus waiting until the end of the day to talk about it.

As time passes, the behavior in question becomes psychologically less important both to the employee, and to you. This includes positive feedback. If I did a good job on a project today, I’ll feel more appreciated by receiving praise from you today, than I would if I received it next week. Timing matters.

4. Use specific examples of behavior and ways to improve

In disciplinary confrontations, it’s always important to have written examples of the offending behavior to support the consequences, and there’s a similar principle for developmental feedback. For example, instead of telling me that you don’t like the quality of my work, tell me exactly what I am not doing correctly and what I can do to make it better.

Bad example: “Mike, your e-mails to clients aren’t professional, clean them up.”

Good example: “Mike, I noticed your last e-mail to Client A didn’t follow our standards for client communication – the signature line is incorrect. Look at my e-mails to see how we do it.”

5.  Practice

It’s always a good idea to practice giving feedback before you do the real thing, especially if you’re unsure whether it’s fitting the tips discussed above. Don’t practice it on employees, of course, but have another manager or even a friend outside of work (network!) role-play the situation and give suggestions. That’s right; you should solicit feedback on your feedback!

Keep these five tips in mind and soon you’ll have great confidence in your ability to provide good feedback. Don’t assume your employees know what you’re thinking. Feedback is the key to unlocking increased productivity and alleviating workplace problems.

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