The Art of Providing Feedback: At least try to describe what to do instead
Providing performance feedback is a neglected art in people management. In a prior article, I discussed how the more specific and more immediate the feedback, the more artful it is. Today, I discuss something that should be obvious but isn’t always observed when managers provide feedback: At least try to provide the correct course of action. This is the constructive part of constructive feedback.
Many managers seem comfortable saying that they don’t like the output, actions or performance of an employee. They may even believe that this qualifies as providing feedback. Here are some examples of some less than artistic “feedback” managers may give:
“You didn’t do it right. Fix it.”
“I don’t like it.”
“I don’t agree with this.”
“This isn’t what I had in mind.”
“This is all wrong.”
Ok, this last one is especially poor, in that it uses generalized language and value judgments that extrapolates a manager’s behavior (discussed in the behavior-based primer). Avoid this kind of language. It makes you a bad manager.
The other examples are all poor, too. They don’t say what to do next time. Receiving “feedback” like this puts the employee in a double-bind: Not only do they have to do something differently, they now have to figure out what that different thing is. Now, add into the equation that the employee evidently didn’t do it right the first time, so it is confirmed that the employee didn’t know what to do the first time.
For a manager to assume that the employee knows what the right action to take going forward is a very poor assumption. The manager is practically begging for a repeat of the scenario: The employee tries something different, then gets the same feedback, “It’s not right.” It’s like an editor marking up every line of an article, but not suggesting what should be there instead. This could create a frustrating cycle for both the manager and the employee that goes on indefinitely.
With the exception of the “you suck” example, the manager can redeem this feedback by making an attempt to describe what ought to be done differently. Let’s try a few:
“You didn’t do it right. Fix it. . . by reallocating the expenses related to the Pruitt Account in budget line item 7.”
“I don’t like it. . . and here’s why. I believe that the VP will think we’re trying to hide something by placing the request for funding at the end. Instead, we should put it at the beginning, right after our introductions.”
“I don’t agree with this. . . What I think we should do instead is have our team draw up the budget first, and see what is possible. Can you do this?”
In these examples, the manager at least tries to provide a different course of action to correct whatever is happening. The more specific, the better. Without it, the manager comes across as both mean and incompetent. “My boss is mean and incompetent” – that’s what the employee will walk away with instead of what to do next.
I’m asking that managers “at least try” to provide a correct course of action because in many situations the correct course of action is not entirely clear. It is often a matter of opinion what the correct path ought to be. The manager, by offering a suggestion, is putting her stake in the ground on what the correct course is. This ought to encourage open discussion with the employees on the pros and cons of the courses of action. Ideas and suggestions should be provided by the both the manager and the employee, and agreement can be found on what needs to be the next steps.
The manager doesn’t have to be right in the end. The manager does have to provide input and come to agreement and direction on the best course of action, even if it isn’t the manager’s original opinion or idea. The upshot is that it should be clear to both the employee and the manager what ought to be done differently next time – no matter how this course was arrived at. This would be some artful feedback!
So in sum, if you don’t like something that the employee did, you do have to say what to do differently next time. Sometimes it is obvious, such as, “Instead of shouting at our customer, listen to what they have to say and lower your voice to their volume level when speaking to them.” Other times even if you don’t know the best course of action, it is still your responsibility as the manager to chart a way to get to the course of action that satisfies you. Identify resources, bring in other opinions, and engage with the employee you are providing feedback to generate ideas for what to do differently. Without this, you risk coming across as a tyrant, a fool, and someone who isn’t interested in actually getting results.
Have you ever given “feedback” without immediately providing an alternative course of action or behavior? Did you get the results? Have you ever received feedback from a manager who says that they didn’t like something, but didn’t say what to do instead?
For more discussion on providing artful feedback, check out the following articles: