Providing corrective feedback: Trend toward tendencies instead of absolutes

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An important skill of any manager is the ability to provide performance feedback.  However, many managers prefer to delay providing performance feedback because of fear of the impression it creates to address an issue with an employee.

For example, managers will delay providing feedback based on fears that the employee will think that manager has forever judged the employee as doing the job incorrectly.  Or, perhaps, since the evidence is there that the job is being performed at a lower level, the manager will, indeed, judge the employee as forever being less capable of doing the job. That is, if the manager is providing feedback, they have rendered final judgment.  With attitudes like this, you could see how both the manager and the employee dread performance feedback conversations.

Neither of these interpretations of what performance feedback achieves is appropriate.  Providing final judgment of the employee is not the point of performance feedback.  Providing performance feedback is a discussion aimed toward changing behaviors for the better, and has been discussed in this blog previously, the more specific and more immediate, the more artful the feedback.  Once performance feedback has been provided, if the job performed improves, then that dreaded final judgment is, by definition, wrong.

So how to help get past this “final judgment” issue?  In today’s post, I provide a way of talking about the behaviors of an employee that is less absolute and provides a more likely path for improvement for the employee.  Here’s the tip:

As you transition to making the evaluation and correction, provide qualifiers – “it is a trend” or “it’s a tendency” — that do not imply absolutes.

To combat the tendency to use generalized language (“You are always late”), a manager can attempt to create an evaluation that discusses trends, indicators and tendencies when making evaluations. 

“You were late twice this week, showing an increasing trend.”

“Your code broke the build twice this month.  I noticed a tendency that you aren’t doing unit tests.”

“You’ve had the presentation up and running on team in each of the last 10 meetings. This is a great indicator of success.”

Using this language has two immediate purposes. 

a)      It hedges against absolutes.  If you don’t add this language, it is easy for an employee to think, “He thinks I’m always late, which isn’t true.”  Or, “She thinks all my code sucks, which it doesn’t.”  Instead, if you do use this language, the employee thinks, “I need to stop this trend” or “If I can turn around this tendency in my boss’s eyes, I’m improving.”

b)      It is easier for an employee to turn around a tendency and a trend.  Rather than try to turn around an employee from being “always late” to being “never late”, it is easier to reverse a trend or tendency to be late.  Similarly, instead of having to turn around a developer whose code sucks into a developer whose code rules, it is easier to turn around a tendency from breaking the build on occasion, to a tendency to check-in code that is stable. 

Getting to the evaluation part of a performance discussion with an employee is something you need to build to, and using terms like trends and tendency will create a better field of discussion and possibility for successful turn-around into a trend.  Then, if the tendency becomes consistent, then you’ve actually improved behaviors and performance.  Good job!

I would like to hear examples of cases where you use of the terms “trend” and “tendency” and “indicators” to focus on improvement.   What has been your experience in these areas?  Are there any terms you’ve used that help hedge against absolutes?

Related posts:

The Art of Providing Feedback: Make it Specific and Immediate

An example of giving specific and immediate feedback and a frightening look into the alternatives

The Art of Providing Feedback: At least try to describe what to do instead

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

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

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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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