Tip #397: The Secret to Giving Critical Performance Feedback

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.”  Mark Twain

There are occasions when supervisors need to give critical performance feedback to an employee. This is often an unpleasant if necessary meeting. However, critical performance feedback does not have to be difficult or uncomfortable for either the supervisor or the employee. The secret? The supervisor needs to co-opt the employee and, within clear parameters, make the employee responsible for proposing how the poor performance will be remedied.

No one likes to be scolded or told they have imperfections. In fact, when supervisors give a critical monologue instead of engaging the employee in a constructive dialogue, it is no wonder that the employee often resorts to childish behavior. Instead, supervisors need to hold employees accountable for resolving their own performance issues. Of course, some of the remedies may directly involve the supervisor. But the conversation will be much more professional and effective if the employee contributes to the solution.

Here is an example:

Ivy has become aware of a performance problem with a relatively new department manager who had previously been a competent and responsible staff member.

Ivy:           “Ralph, in July we had a good conversation about what we needed for the board meeting in September. I can always count on you to meet project deadlines. And that is why I am confused about the current hold up on this project. I thought we had an understanding that it would be completed by now. Can you shed some light on it?”

Ralph:        “Well, I had a number of other projects come up in the interim and it seemed to me that they were of greater priority than this one. Why do you ask?”

Ivy:            “I can appreciate that you were juggling several projects. However, I thought that you knew that the board needed your budget information for their budget planning, which starts next week.”

Ralph:       “I’ve worked here for years and the board has never started their budget talks on time. I figured that I had at least three more weeks before they’d need anything from me. So it seemed like the best use of my time to focus on the other projects.”

Ivy:          “I can see what you were thinking. The problem is that they are going to start on time and they will need the information by next Tuesday. What will you need to do to meet that deadline?”

Ralph:       “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner? I can’t meet that deadline. My vacation starts tomorrow and I won’t be back until next Thursday.”

Ivy:          “I realize that your vacation is already approved. I had thought that all of your projects were completed. It wasn’t until your status report at our managers’ meeting this morning that I realized this was still outstanding.” 

Ralph:      “Well, I guess the board will just have to make do without my information until I get back.” 

Ivy:         “What will be the consequences of that approach?”

Ralph:       “It won’t delay them that much. I know some of the board members and I don’t think it will be such a big deal for them.”

Ivy:          “You don’t seem to feel that the consequences are very great.”

Ralph:       “No, I don’t. This won’t be the first time they’ve had to start planning without all of the information they needed.” 

Ivy:          “Well, I’m sure that they can start their planning without your information. The point is that they have only so much money to allocate. If your information isn’t in front of them, you may be very disappointed with your department’s budget for the upcoming year.

Since you’ve talked about making a number of improvements in our newsletter, both the membership and your staff have some pretty specific expectations that could be disappointed.  I’m hoping that this consequence isn’t acceptable to you, because it certainly isn’t acceptable to me.”

Ralph:       “Of course it isn’t acceptable to me. But that still doesn’t change the fact that I’m on vacation as of tomorrow.”

Ivy:          “That still doesn’t change the fact that the board needs the information by next Tuesday. Given this deadline reality, what are you going to do to meet it?” 

Ralph:       “Well, the most time consuming part of the project is collating statistics. If I had some help, I could get them in usable form by the end of the day.”

Ivy:          “We can certainly see if Jim or Sharon can work with you the rest of the day. But I don’t know what their work load is today. What if we can’t find you some help? Then what?”

Ralph:       “Then, if I have to, I’ll stay until I get it done.”

Ivy:          “Well, it sounds as if you’ve got it covered if Sharon or Jim can’t help. I’ll check with them now.”

Ralph:       “Thanks. In the meantime, I’ll start pulling those stats.”

Ivy:          “Before you go, I’d appreciate it if you’d recap what we’ve decided.”

Ralph:       “Either I’ll do it myself today and this evening, or I’ll have some help. But either way, the board will get my budget information in time.”

Ivy:          “Great. I’ll let you know if you’ll have some help within the next half hour.

Ralph:       “Thanks!”

It so happened that Jim was able to help Ralph out, with the understanding that Ralph would return the favor. So the board got the budget information on time.

When Ralph returned from vacation, Ivy met with him again to discuss how to avoid a recurrence of this problem and how to keep their working relationship constructive and cooperative.

As the example shows, it is possible to provide critical performance feedback in a firm yet collaborative manner. The supervisor is responsible for defining the problem, setting the parameters for a solution, and insisting on an effective resolution. The supervisor holds the employee responsible for acknowledging the problem, identifying the negative consequences of leaving the problem unresolved, and proposing a viable solution that is acceptable to the supervisor.

In this approach to giving critical performance feedback, the employee is co-opted into accepting responsibility for resolving the performance issue. Ideally, since the employee is being treated in an adult and professional fashion rather than scolded like a child, the employee will respond in an adult and professional manner.

May your learning be sweet.



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