How to use behavior-based language to lead to evaluation and feedback

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In the previous post, I provided some markers of behavior-based language that will help managers avoid the pitfalls and tendencies (documented here and here) of providing performance feedback incorrectly.  In today’s post, I’ll discuss how using behavior-based language makes it easier to transition to evaluating and providing performance feedback to an employee.  As a manager, you are expected to evaluate an employee’s performance as part of the performance management process, so getting to the point where you can do this to your employee is important.  Here are some tips for getting to that evaluation using the set-up of behavior-based language.

I advocate for starting a performance feedback discussion with observations using behavior-based language, which isn’t always easy, but worth the effort.  Here are some examples of starting a conversation with behavior-based language.

“I heard you say, ‘I plan to slack off work next week.’”

“I observed that you came in late in each of the past three days.”

“I saw that you were setting up the presentation in advance.”

“I observe that you code has not broken the build all month.”

When you use this behavior-based language, you naturally build a case toward an evaluative and corrective conclusion.

The examples provided above don’t have an evaluative aspect to them.  But they do build the case toward an evaluative aspect.  In fact, they often automatically imply what the correct behaviors ought to be.  If done well, the person to whom you’re providing feedback will likely see the evaluation and correct behaviors via the case that is being built:

“You arrived late three times this week. . .” leads to the evaluation and corrective action: “Being late makes you a less effective employee, hurts the team, and you need to come in on time.”

“Your code broke the build twice this month” leads to the evaluation and correction, “Your code should not break the build and we need to find ways to make sure this doesn’t happen as frequently.”

“Your presentation was ready and you started on time” leads to the evaluation and encouragement, “Keep doing this and setting the groundwork for successful pitches.”

One mistake that many managers make is they start with or skip ahead to the evaluative aspect.  It’s a shortcut that doesn’t work:

To the frequently late employee, a manager may err by starting with “You’re hurting the team.”

The manager of the developer may start with “Your code sucks.”

The manager who likes the presentation may start with, “Your presentation rocks.”

If you feel like you have to start with the evaluative aspect, or do this accidently, do not despair.  It’s natural to do this, but now you have to make an effort to back it up with observed behaviors and specifics.

Another incentive to start with the observations is that is that the employee with offer to you to the same logical conclusion about what has to change in his performance, “So I need to come in on time.”  The employee will even offer suggestions for how to do this, “I think I need to do more unit tests to make sure my code is stable.”  This is great when this happens (but note that it doesn’t always happen), because then you can focus on the discussion about corrective actions, as it is quickly conceded that the employee’s performance needs to change.

When praising an employee, it works fine to start with the evaluation (“You did great!”), but you still have to describe what it was that made it great.  For example: “Each presentation you did over the last month resulted in buy-in from the principals.  The factors I observed contributing to this are you had the presentation ready on time, you practiced it before hand, and you had responses ready overcome objections.”  By backing it up with the specifics, you will encourage the continued observed behaviors, and not inadvertently encourage behaviors that you don’t want to continue.  Similarly, if and when the employee engages in behaviors that are not “great”, this allows you the room to discuss those behaviors without contradicting the previous feedback.

So when giving performance feedback, start with the evidence you have before getting to the evaluation.

Have you ever given or received feedback where the evaluation came first?  How did it go?

Related posts:

Behavior-based language primer: Steps and Examples of replacing using adverbs

Behavior-based language primer for managers: How to tell if you are using behavior-based language

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Avoid using value judgments

Behavior-based language primer for managers: Stop using generalizations

Why the annual performance review is often toxic

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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