How to have a feedback conversation with an employee when the situation is complex

  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • RSS

In today’s post, I’ll discuss how to perform the feedback conversation with your employee when the situation is complex.

This is the latest in a series of posts describing how to approach a situation where the employee appeared to do something wrong, but it could be that there are greater forces that shaped the employee’s behavior, and it is uncertain what the right thing to do is.  But you, the manager, has to address it.  The example used from previous posts is when an employee ambushes a VP (or the VP tells you, the manager, she feels she was ambushed).  I call this a “complex feedback situation.”

In the previous post, I offered five questions to ask prior to having the feedback discussion with the employee.  Doing this preparation makes the conversation more sympathetic to the employee’s position, and also sets you up better for the feedback conversation.

So here are the steps to take during the feedback conversation when it’s not clear what the right employee behavior is.

Step 1:  Acknowledge that it is a tough situation and try to get the employee’s perspective

When beginning the discussion with the employee, share what you know about the situation.  Then immediately transition and ask what the employee’s sense of the events were.  Speak in neutral terms that do not declare whether the employee performed well or poorly.  Sample introduction:

“I’d like to talk about what happened when you approached the VP and what we can learn from it.  I want to hear from you how it went, and I’ll share with you what I know.”

It is important to make it clear that this is a collaborative conversation, not one where you weigh in on what the correct or incorrect thing is.  Doing so will kill the conversation, and create mistrust and frustration.

When going over the incident in question, be sure to listen to the employee’s perspective and focus on what he has to say about the factors that went into his decision and approach, because this leads to the next phase.

Step 2:  Engage in collaborative analysis about the forces that went into the tough situation.

Again, you aren’t correcting anything here, you are engaging in a discussion about the background.  Here is the transition statement:

“Let’s talk about the factors that went into the situation.  I have a few questions that can help surface the decision making process and guide us what to do next.”

At this point, explore the five questions with the employee to determine if there are any insights that will help you understand the forces that went into the incident:

Has the behavior worked before?

Were there hurdles outside the employee’s sphere of influence?

Was there increasing time pressure?

Was the employee punished for doing it correctly and with quality (or has quality not yet been defined)?

Were there resistances in the environment?

By doing this, you identify what the system forces are, and what the employee’s behaviors are, and can analyze the two together.  This serves to two main functions:  It assures that the employee is not being blamed for things that was not his fault.  It identifies the landscape so corrective action, if any, is smarter.  Which lead us to our third step:

Step 3:  Engage in a strategy session for what to do differently and what to do next

In the “unsympathetic” corrective feedback model, it is assumed that if the employee changes the behavior, performance will be improved, and problem solved.  In the sympathetic corrective feedback model, it isn’t so naïve.  It understands that the next steps require a strategy that takes into account the difficulties of the system and not the performance issues of the employee.  Here is the transition statement you can use with your employee:

“I’d like to strategize with you what we can do now to improve the situation, and what we can do so that this kind of thing goes better next time.”

You’ll notice that this transition statement assumes a different course of action on the part of both the manager and the employee, so it is in essence a corrective feedback session. But it’s a corrective feedback session for both of you — the manager and the employee.  As part of the strategy session, you need to come up with an approach that should involve

1)     what you as a manager can do better to help the employee be set up for success

2)     what both of you can do to make the overall environment better to get your desired results

3)     what the employee can do now to make the situation better and differently in a similar situation

It is still corrective feedback, in that the employee will do something different next time.  Plus it has the bonus of you, the manager, doing something differently next time.  If you keep chipping away at it, you’ll perhaps even make the system better as well.

Have you been in feedback conversations where you felt the system was more of the problem, and not your behavior?  Have you ever conducted a “strategy session” to identify the right behaviors, rather than a performance feedback session?  I look forward to hearing your stories!

Related Posts:

When an employee does something wrong, it’s not always about the person. It’s about the system, too.

A tool to analyze the greater forces driving your employee’s performance

Providing corrective feedback: Trend toward tendencies instead of absolutes

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

Why the annual performance review is often toxic

Share and Enjoy


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


4 Responses to “How to have a feedback conversation with an employee when the situation is complex”


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] my next blog post, I’ll discuss more about how to have this complex, sympathetic feedback conversation with your […]

  2. […] Use these feedback moments to better strategize how your team operates and works […]

  3. […] How to have a feedback conversation with an employee when the situation is complex […]

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!