When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: On the job

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In today’s article, I continue my series of sources of direct observation managers can use to provide improved performance feedback.  Previously, I discussed how a manager can use practice sessions to provide specific and immediate feedback that dramatically increases the chances of high quality (and aligned) performance when it counts.

In today’s article, I discuss direct observation of the actual on the job performance as a source of performance feedback.

I advocate that managers should give performance feedback based on directly observed performance.  However, there are some guidelines that need to be observed in attempting this.

1. Give performance feedback during the performance only if it doesn’t ruin the performance

In the example of an employee giving a presentation, it is not recommended to “give feedback” during this performance.  Unless the manager and the employee have worked out an agreement that allows the manager to assist the employee (i.e. jump in to clarify the point, give the signal to speed up), then the manager should not “give feedback” during the performance.   The manager can give feedback after the performance.  And it should be specific, immediate, and behavior-based.

However, if the performance is “writing software code”, and the performance can be interrupted without sacrificing the product, then direct observation of the performance for the purposes of providing performance feedback can be entirely appropriate.

Imagine a manager sitting down with an employee to watch him create software code.  It may end up being a boring exercise, where the code-writing is entirely uneventful, the employee writes code well, and there really isn’t much to be said other than, “Good job, you’re writing code well.  I see how you use resources to solve problems, and you’ve stayed focused on the task at hand.”  If the employee’s job is to write code, then this is great news!  The employee should get praise for doing the job well, and the manager can have high confidence that this person is doing the job well.  A manager should strive toward boring events like this.  She can move on to other things.

But imagine if the person is making lots of mistakes.  Their code is inelegant and misses opportunities for efficiency.  Or the employee doesn’t use the expected resources, or doesn’t check in the code per procedures.  Or the employee stops coding and checks email every five minutes.  Or people swing by the cubicle and ask him questions repeatedly.  Now the manager has terrific insights into what is going on with that employee, and can provide performance feedback on how to perform the job differently.

I recommend having the manager observe the performance in the environment where the person performs their job.  Not, for example, in a training room or the manager’s office.  Go to where the person does their job (if available).

By doing this, the manager may see that there is an environmental issue – the computer is slow, the room is too dark, people nearby are too loud.   This could have an impact on performance, and the manager should be able to do something about this.

2. Make sure the performance you’re observing the main part of their job

Let’s say a manager asks an employee to present something during a team meeting.  Then the employee does it, but he does not engage the audience, has trouble expressing his ideas, or seem disorganized.  This would be a problem for an employee whose job is to present information in team meetings, but if the person is a software developer, you’re observing their performance on something that isn’t really their main job.  Perhaps you can expect this from a “senior” software developer, but a junior software developer?  You should be happy if they can do the job that they signed up for.

So look at your team and see what you can do to directly observe their performance on what the main part of their job is.  Then provide specific and immediate feedback either while doing the job, or very soon thereafter.  The more direct the observation the better, since this will increase the likelihood that the feedback will be relevant to the job and based on observed behaviors.

3. Document the observed behaviors, both good and in need of improvement

Since the manager is taking the time to observe the behaviors of the employee, the manager has the opportunity to document the performance.  I recommend using a performance log to document these.  With this, you have a record of what you observed, and when you observe it again, you can see if there are any positive changes.  See my series of articles on performance logs on how to best utilize this tool for managers.

For you management designers out there, what do you do to ensure that managers can directly observe the people they manage doing their job?   As a manager, what have you done to observe directly the performance of your employees in doing their job?

Related Articles:

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

Examples of when to offer thanks and when to offer praise

What inputs should a manager provide performance feedback on?

When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: Practice sessions

Helpful tip for managers: Keep a performance log

Examples of when to offer thanks and when to offer praise

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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 .


11 Responses to “When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: On the job”
  1. It is also important to keep in mind…If the desired performance change is behaviorally simple…immediate feedback during the occurrence can positively impact short term learning and desired change but if the desired performance change is behaviorally complex or cognitive (i.e. problem analysis) immediate feedback is detrimental to long term learning and integration of the feedback…so post observation specific feedback is sometimes the most effective.

  2. Thanks for adding this texture to the article. Agreed — “on the job” performance feedback can take place either during the performance event, or after the performance event, and Richard provides excellent guidance for when to employ one or the other. Excellent advice!


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