Behavior-based language primer for managers: Examples of how to improve employee corrective feedback and how to get rid of damaging adverbs
An important skill for any manager is to use behavior-based language. This is the latest in a series of primers that help managers modify their language so that they can better focus on an employee’s performance, rather than make the mistake of (mis)characterizing the employee’s value through generalized language or value judgments.
An important step in improving your behavior-based language skills is to reduce the use of adverbs, as they are merely shortcuts that undermine your ability to describe and improve an employee’s performance. In my previous post, I described the process of removing adverbs to improve behavior-based language using examples of positive feedback to an employee. In today’s post, I do the same for corrective feedback.
The intent for corrective feedback is to have the employee stop doing one thing, and start doing another. Using adverbs in your corrective feedback creates a haze over this process, and will likely confuse the employee receiving the feedback. Here are some examples of things managers tend to say that are decisively not behavior-based (and therefore should not be said):
You really let me down.
You’re totally not focused on the right things.
You’re very indecisive.
You make way too many errors.
You’re always late.
The adverbs in the above examples surreptitiously insert a quantifiable and qualitative evaluation in the discussion. Using adverbs, such as “surreptitiously” is fun in a blog post, but not so great in using behavior-based language in providing corrective feedback.
OK, now let’s try to make these statements more behavior-based through the practice of removing adverbs. I’ve bolded the adverbs in the table below:
|You really let me down.||You let me down.|
|You’re totally not focused on the right things.||You’re not focused on the right things.|
|You’re very indecisive.||You’re indecisive.|
|You make way too many errors.||You make many errors.|
|You’re always late.||You’re late.|
These “improved” examples aren’t quite “good”, because they are far from behavior-based descriptors of what the employee should stop doing and instead start doing. But they are “improved” since they don’t add insult to injury, and at the bare minimum allow the employee and manager to begin to engage in a constructive discussion about what is going on.
In the example of “You’re indecisive,” this is still a poor example of behavior-based language, since it is a summary of the employee’s personality. However, it does essentially create an opening for the employee to ask (nay, demand), “When have I been indecisive?” Now the manager needs to come up with some examples. The same thing goes for “You let me down” vs. “You really let me down.” Without the piling-on of “You really let me down”, the conversation at least has more opportunity (although still not great) to discuss what it actually was that let the manager down.
The “improved” examples above all come across as flat – there has to be more substance behind these bland statements. So provide the substance with examples of what the employee did:
|You let me down.||You let me down when I didn’t receive the presentation slides in time to review them for the presentation. There were some mistakes that I found during the presentation.|
|You’re not focused on the right things.||You’re not focused on the right things. For example, I asked you to revise the functional spec, but I observed you cleaning out your desk.|
|You’re indecisive.||You’re indecisive. When I ask for your opinion on whether we should invest, you provided me options, but not a recommendation.|
|You make many errors.||You make many errors. I have had to assign sixteen re-work items in the past two weeks.|
|You’re late.||You’re late over the 10% acceptable rate.|
Now, If you don’t have the substance to provide, then you probably aren’t ready to give performance feedback. Try to think through – why do I think that he’s always late? Why do I think that he’s indecisive? If you can’t answer with an example (the more recent the better), then you aren’t ready for the discussion.
In these better examples, qualitative and quantitative evidence is provided. The manager was able to come up with examples and evidence that support the basic thesis behind the original “adverbial” sentiment. They are descriptors of the behavior. The original statements become the evaluation portion of the feedback, and can better be placed at the end of the statement, if at all.
|You let me down when I didn’t receive the presentation slides in time to review them for the presentation. There were some mistakes that I found during the presentation.||I didn’t receive the presentation slides in time to review them for the presentation. There were some mistakes that I found during the presentation.|
|You’re not focused on the right things. For example, I asked you to revise the functional spec, but I observed you cleaning out your desk.||For example, I asked you to revise the functional spec, but I observed you cleaning out your desk. In this situation you did not focused on the right thing.|
|You’re indecisive. When I ask for your opinion on whether we should invest, you provided me options, but not a recommendation.||When I ask for your opinion on whether we should invest, you provided me options, but not a recommendation. This came across as indecisive.|
|You make many errors. I have had to assign sixteen re-work items in the past two weeks.||I have had to assign sixteen re-work items in the past two weeks. This is more errors than is acceptable.|
|You’re late over the 10% acceptable rate.||You’re late over the 10% acceptable rate. Let’s try to find ways to get this back to at or below the acceptable rate.|
In the “much better” grid, the adverbs are gone, the quantifiable assessment or evidence is presented first, and the evaluation part comes last, if at all.
You’ll note that the “better” and “much better” grids are wordier than the compressed language in the first grid. This is by design. The adverbs used in the examples at the top of the post create a messy cloud around the topic that will likely confuse both you and the person receiving the feedback. Behavior-based language does not promise to be quicker in the actual number of words. However, using this type of language will more quickly and effectively resolve workplace issues and will allow you to move on to other things.
What examples of corrective feedback have you given or received that used adverbs? Did it work? How would it have better been phrased?
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