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    Top two strategies to handle candid performance conversations

    7 min read

    You might have heard the popular saying, "Honesty is the best policy" or "Give feedback early and often."  Great advice. Most people know honesty and timely feedback are the right things to do. Yet, taking the initiative to provide feedback takes a backseat to save face, avoid awkward conversations, or damage a relationship.

    The employee loses out on information that means the difference between performance success, a feeling of belonging and being a contributing team member, and the opportunity to grow and advance professionally.

    If you’re a team leader, manager, or HR talent professional and can relate to this, I’m here to help. Giving feedback is hard and the skills don’t come naturally for most, but they can be learned. Keep reading to discover how to work around the challenges in initiating candid conversations. l share two strategies and tips to provide hearable sayable feedback. Learn a little-known, but an easy strategy for addressing issues in the moment and for tackling longer-term patterns of problem performance.


    Why do we withhold information that could be valuable?

    Managers want to provide performance-boosting feedback because they want people to succeed, but giving feedback is daunting. There are many reasons why people avoid or delay feedback:

    • You have no idea what to say

    • The employee is doing the work, so ignoring the disruptive behavior is validated

    • I hate conflict

    • What if I make things worse?

    • This person reacts poorly to feedback 

    • This employee can't change

    • Changing behavior isn't possible

    Even the most experienced and qualified managers have reasons for delaying a difficult conversation.  But why?  Because we're worried about the feedback receiver's response.  And rightly so!


    Flight or Fight Responses - Why and What you Need to Understand

    You've likely heard the saying, "Feedback is a gift."  But natural tendency from the feedback receiver is to defend, rationalize, and justify one's actions.  No matter how much you believe, someone should be open to constructive feedback; controlling their reaction isn't possible.  

    Unsurprisingly, people react defensively when confronted with a deficiency.   Negative feedback feels threatening and links to psychological fear.  The brain senses a threat, and the response is to: 

    1. Fightback, which manifests as an aggressive self-protective response (denial, deflecting, defending, or rationalizing).

    2. Retreat and shut down where the feedback receiver becomes quiet and has little to no response.    

    Reacting protectively to criticism is a human brain-based reaction.  We can't go backward and change the past.  We can only deflect, defend or rationalize.  

    Conversations that begin like, "Ann, I have noticed some problems with your status updates," or "John, you're not following through on…" usually trigger some version of the fight or flight reaction instead of leading to a healthy candid conversation. 

    The solution?  First, we need to unlearn what we've been taught.  Let me explain.

    How Traditional Feedback Triggers Defensive Reactions

    Feedback, also known as "constructive criticism," is infamous for spotlighting people's shortcomings. Performance feedback training for managers typically focuses on the Situation, Behavior, and Impact method. The method centers around highlighting weaknesses. For example, 

    "Marci, I have some feedback to share.  The last report contained errors because you factored in the labor and shipping costs incorrectly.  It looks like you didn't double-check your work.  As a result, Judy had to rerun the numbers, and the delay caused Don to drop their work to fix his mistakes.  It seems like I'll need to go through your month-end reports to check for any issues before we hand them over to the Controller.  


    In Marci's example, the manager's feedback is accurate, but how will Marci react?  Will she accept the information and put her energy into improving her performance? Will she feel better about herself, her job, role, colleagues, or manager?  Likely not.    

    This approach is the prime reason for withholding feedback because we can anticipate an unreceptive response.  Using this method is usually a roadblock to achieving a productive outcome or gaining agreement on what needs to be changed. 

    There are better ways to provide feedback.


    Two Strategies for Handling In-the-Moment Feedback and Patterns of Unmet Expectations 

    Someone misses your expectations, and you're disappointed, annoyed, concerned, or frustrated. Why not address the issue on the spot? Because knowing what to say and how to say it is hard for all the reasons explained above. Did you know only about six percent of leaders or managers have the right skillset to initiate candid performance conversations?  

    When problems are left to fester, single instances pile up and form patterns spanning months or years. The more time between the incident(s) and the feedback, the less likely the manager will raise the issue because they know they should have discussed the matter earlier. 

    It's never too late to help course correct performance.  Let me show you how to find the right words to address single instances and redirect problematic patterns.  The two approaches are interchangeable, but let's begin with Single Instances:

    1. How to Address Single Single-Instance Performance Problems or Concerns

    When you see something, say something, but keep it short and neutral. One of the most popular methods I teach in the Conversations in the Moment workshop is called, "I couldn't help but notice that _______ (say what you observed).

    • "Hey, I couldn't help but notice in the meeting this morning you were crossing your arms and rolling your eyes." 

    • "I couldn't help but notice that when the team worked to solve the shipping delay, your comments focused on blaming Jim and Judi." 

    True story.  Years ago, I found a team members' resume at the printer.  My assumption was, Sharon is looking for another job.  I valued Sharon and didn't want to risk losing her.   I had to speak up. Here's what I said, "Sharon, I couldn't help but notice your resume on the printer."  Full stop. Sharon's response: "I'm applying for a certificate program and need to include my resume."  

    Notice I didn't say, "Sharon, I saw your resume on the printer.  Are you looking for another job?" Say what you see, and then stop talking and let the person respond.  

    It's Never too Late to Give Feedback In-the-Moment

    Even with months or years' long patterns of off-target actions or behavior, address a single incident with the starter phrase of, "Hey, I couldn't help but notice that_________."


    2. How to Address Patterns of Underperformance 

    My all-time favorite quote is, "every complaint is a poorly worded request." Think about it:  if there's something we don't want, there must be something we do want. At home, at work, and in life, our first reaction to a frustrating situation or unmet expectations is to vent and complain:  

    • She loves blowing everything out of proportion.

    • He acts like the smartest person in the room, and no one gets a chance to contribute.

    • Her presentations are always missing some crucial elements.

    • She never gets me the information on time.

    • He never includes me in the investor calls.

    It's ok to start with grievances, but don't stop there. Ranting is a dead end. Instead, see the complaint as the starting point. Here is how it works:

    Step 1 - Spot the Performance Issue and Minimize Bias and Baseless Opinions

    Start by identifying the problematic behavior or actions:  

      • Cull out Assumptions - be factual. Recognize that opinions, judgments, and assumptions aren't facts.  Make a clear distinction between opinions and accurate information.  What is true versus someone's guess?  

      • Gather the Facts - collect facts and examples instead of pushing judgmental views as the truth.  If someone behaved rudely at a meeting, focus on what exactly they said or did.

      • Evaluate the Impact - assess and state the negative impact the problem creates. Has it slowed down the team's performance, led to confusion, created extra work, etc.? "The behavior stopped people from contributing at the meeting."

    Step 2 - Be Specific 

    Now that you've uncovered what you don't want, turn the problematic issue into statements about future contributions:  

      • Describe the target performance - once you have spotted the performance issue, frame your words to describe the on-target performance. "I'd like to see you contribute more in our team meetings by sharing your findings of _______."  
      • Be specific - avoid general statements like, "be more proactive."   Describe what it would look like if the individual were more proactive.   To see change, you need to be explicit.     

    Step 3 - Explain the Positive Impact

    Avoid calling out the negative impact of someone's behavior or actions.  Instead, connect the change or request to the future positive impact.  For example, "This will go a long way in helping the team feel valued" or "Once you sharpen your problem-solving skills, people will appreciate your creative perspective."  

    Don’t Forget to Recognize Progress and Positive Impact

    When you see progress, provide positive feedback, like, “Hey, we just talked about you speaking up more in meetings, and today I noticed you dove right into the conversation.”  Positive feedback is a powerful driver.  Take time to show people their value and positive impact.     

    I recently had an unusual need to find a custom software development partner specializing in Microsoft web technology ASP.NET and SQL Server.  Not an easy find.  An exhaustive search led to a US-based partner with an offshore development team.  My first question was, how have you managed to work successfully with your remote team?  His answer:  “continual feedback with an emphasis on calling out the positives.  This is really important because poor communication is the #1 reason for software project failure. One must not only communicate effectively with customers but also with employees in the form of feedback.”


    Summing Up

    As a manager, when you encounter a performance concern, your priority is to provide employees with an opportunity to make progress and bring change. Building a solid case proving the person's shortcomings is an outdated belief. Criticizing and raising past issues makes it awkward and uncomfortable to initiate conversations, so resist dredging up old examples like "Remember in July when you…).

    Use the "I couldn't help but notice…" starter to call attention to a concern or perceived problem. Stay neutral and hold off on assuming motivations or making assumptions.

    Recognize complaints and frustrations as opportunities to course-correct performance.  Focus on WHAT needs to be changed and WHY it is essential. The key is creating a hearable sayable message to start the conversation, stay neutral and open, and enable the receiver to understand and process the information.

    If people in your organization avoid difficult conversations, they will benefit from our Performance Feedback Training. Our specialty is quickly developing the skills to provide performance-boosting feedback. Please reach out to Employee Performance Solutions to learn more.

    Jamie-resketJamie Resker, Practice Leader and Founder of Employee Performance Solutions, has a uniquely singular focus - optimizing employee performance through re-shaping communications between managers and employees based on two-way, frequent, informal conversations designed to align performance expectations. She helps organizations make the shift away from reviewing and rating past performance to building the capacity of everyone in the organization to speak candidly about strengths, accomplishments, and more comfortably re-direct off-target performance. Jamie is the originator of the Performance Continuum Feedback Method® and The 10-Minute Conversation, frameworks proven to drive individual, team and organizational performance. She's known for being ahead of her time and has dedicated half of her three-decades long HR career to re-framing performance management. As a thought leader on the topic of modernizing performance management she is a frequent contributor on the topic.



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