Tips for how managers should use indirect sources of information about employees
In my previous articles, I’ve provided warnings about using indirect sources of information about your employees to provide performance feedback. The reasons are numerous, some of which are provided here and here. Indirect sources of information about your employees performance may include “feedback” from sources such as customers, peers or your boss. We may call this “feedback”, but it isn’t really feedback, since it is, by definition, time delayed and usually non-specific. This makes it, for the most part, non-actionable. So this information – while copious — doesn’t merit the high bar that is “feedback.” However, this is information about your employee, so let’s look at some ways to maximize the value of this information – instead of just passing it along as non-specific and non-immediate “feedback.”
What to do with indirect information about your employee
a) Try to get more info
If you get some sort of “feedback” about your employee, at least try to get information about what it is that the employee did to earn the feedback.
Let’s say your boss tells you that your employee, John, “Nailed it this week.”
Here’s what you can say, “That’s great information! What is it specifically that John did?” Don’t expect the boss (or anyone else providing this feedback) to be armed with the specifics. It will most likely be something sloppy like, “He did a really good job in the meeting we were in.” OK, so you know it has something to do with a meeting he was in.
That’s great, but recognize that it isn’t worthy of “performance feedback”, since it isn’t specific as to what he did. Instead of treating it like feedback, treat it as “information” or “data”. It is input that John is somehow doing a good job in some way. Great! Now, instead of turning it into “feedback” use it as a platform to learn more about what John is doing.
The same strategy goes for a negative example. Your boss comes to you and says, “I’m worried about Maurice. He doesn’t seem to have his act together. Make sure he turns things around.” Again, this is not very specific, so you have to attempt to get more information. The boss gives you nothing more than a lead, “He was not cooperative during the meeting.” So now you know it has something to do with a meeting, being cooperative, and his boss’s boss. That’s not much to give performance feedback on, since you don’t know what he did, or what he needs to do differently. So instead of giving performance feedback (since you didn’t observe the performance), you should treat it as a data point, an input, and a platform for learning more about what Maurice is doing.
b) If important, document in a performance log to identify trends
The first thing to consider doing is to put this information in a performance log. In this case, you can note the “feedback” from the indirect, but you don’t have to give this feedback to the employee, however tempting it may be. If the quality of the information isn’t that great (and it often isn’t very good at all, per the above examples), then it is better to keep it as a data point, not an action item. Tracking it in a performance log allows you to see if it becomes a trend or a tendency. If it becomes a trend or tendency, then this is something worth investigating more. Find opportunities to more direct observation so you can provide actionable performance feedback, which can be either positive or corrective – don’t just focus on negative comments!
c) Look for opportunities for direct observation, then provide the feedback
Armed with data points from other sources of indirect information, you can make a more strategic decision about which behaviors you need to observe more to give performance feedback on. If there is a tendency you notice that the boss or a customer frequently gives you information about, and it seems relevant and important to the job performance, then look for opportunities for direct observation on what it is that is generating this “feedback.” I provide tips for where to find opportunities for direct observation in my series on “direct observation.” Only after directly observing the behaviors can you give quality performance feedback (both reinforcing and corrective).
d) In positive scenarios, share the indirect feedback if you have direct observation as well
OK, sometimes a boss or a customer gives you feedback that they really liked what they saw, or didn’t like what they experienced. If you happen to have your own observation of this event (such as your own direct observation, or a tangible artifact related to the event), then use your own observations to provide the feedback. If it is reinforcing feedback (i.e., “keep doing this”), couple your specific and immediate feedback with the feedback heard from customers or your boss. “I received a compliment from customers that they really liked this, too.”
If corrective feedback, it is usually sufficient for you to provide your own observations in providing the feedback – and you can opt to use language that indicates the impact of the actions, “Customers will prefer it if you do it this way.” You do not need to cite others’ feedback as part of your own performance feedback.
In short – try to refrain from reacting to feedback about your employee until you have more tangible information about what it is that the employee is doing that is either good or needs to be corrected. Managers who approach the improvement of their employees’ performance in this manner build more trust, are able to drive performance to higher levels, and, ironically, don’t have to worry about providing as much performance feedback. It’s a more strategic approach compared to reacting and sharing whatever tidbit of info you’ve heard from the myriad of sources of info, and allows managers to avoid many mistakes that disrupt the relationship between the employee and the manager.
In my next article, I’ll discuss what to do about situations where there isn’t the luxury of being able to wait until direct observation opportunities, such as customer complaints.