Have you ever received performance feedback about what you say and do in a 1:1 meeting?
Have you ever received performance feedback about your contributions to a team meeting?
Have you ever received performance feedback about not attending a team event or party?
Were you frustrated about this? I would be. Here’s why:
The performance feedback is about your interactions with your manager and not about what you are doing on the job. This is an all-too-common phenomenon.
If you are getting feedback about items external to your job expectations, but not external to your relationship with your boss, you aren’t receiving performance feedback. You’re receiving feedback on how you interact with your boss. The “performance” that is important is deferred/differed from your job performance, and into a new zone of performance – your “performance in front of your boss.”
OK, so now you have two jobs. 1. Your job and 2. Your “performance in front of your boss.”
Here’s a tip for managers: Banish the word “always” from your vocabulary.
The Manager by Design blog frequently writes about how to give performance feedback. Performance feedback is an important skill for any manager, as it is one of the quickest ways to improve performance of individuals on your team.
One particularly useless word in the art of performance feedback is the word “always.” Here are some examples of where a manager mistakenly uses “always” in performance feedback:
You’re always late
You always make bad decisions
You always come up short
These are examples of bad performance feedback, since they are not behavior-based, but the word that makes these examples particularly bad is the word “always.” That’s because “always” implies that the employee’s performance is eternal and permanent. And that undermines the whole point of performance feedback, which is to change the way your employees are performing, and have them do something better instead.
Let’s start by removing the word always from the three examples above:
You made a bad decision
You came up short
OK, these are still pretty bad, but at least this feedback didn’t put an eternal and permanent brand on the employee as “always late,” “always bad at making decisions,” and “always underperforming.” At least without the word “always”, the feedback is isolated to the once incident, making it possible for the feedback to be more specific and immediate.
Removing the word “always” allows you to focus on the particular event you are giving feedback on, and not make a generalization about the person’s permanent character.
Removing the word “always” allows you to support the thesis about “late” “bad decisions” and “coming up short” with more details. By discussing the details, you at least have entry to discussion as to why this happened, and identify the forces that went into the performance.
Removing the word “always” implies that this bad event can be turned around and the next time the performance can be improved.
When you use the word “always” in a feedback conversation, it implies that there is a permanence to the employee behavior the manager is ostensibly trying to correct. “Always” makes the performance feedback conversation useless, because instead of trying to get the employee to do something differently next time (be on time, make a good decision, meet the goal), it instead sounds like a relegation or banishment to permanent underperformance that the employee can never get out of.
That’s not good for either the manager or the employee, unless you want a chronically underperforming team that hates the manager.
Finally, by saying someone is “always late” or “always makes poor decisions”, it is inherently incorrect. If that employee can find one time he was on time, or one time she made a correct decision, then the manager is proven wrong. Not a good move if you want to be able to lead a team.
So to all of the managers out there – banish the word “always” from your vocabulary.
Have you ever been told that you “always” do something? What was that like?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent article called “The Talent Myth”, which appears in his book What the Dog Saw. In this article, he discusses companies that obsess over getting the top talent and the consequences of this. He focuses on Enron, and how it sought obsessively to attract and promote those with the most talent, which, amongst other things, resulted in a high degree of turnover within the company and made it difficult to figure out who actually was the best talent. In the article he asks:
“How do you evaluate someone’s performance in a system where no one is in a job long enough to allow such evaluation? The answer is that you end up doing performance evaluations that aren’t based on performance.” (What the Dog Saw, p. 363)
Does this describe your organization?
I’ve recently written about how many organizations go through a painful, angst-ridden and rhetorically charged process of identifying who the top performers are in an organization. Different managers assert their cases and advance some employees as “high potentials” and others as “needs improvement.”
This effort inures the concept that there is some sort of truth about an individual performer in comparison to her peers, and that this is relationship is static. Or, when it comes to annual reviews, true for at least one more year.
The process of deciding who’s on top and who needs improvement is an ongoing assertion that talent is the most important thing. If you can get more talented people, the more successful you will be. That is the thesis that this activity of ranking employees seems to advance.
But as Malcolm Gladwell’s article shows, this isn’t such a great idea, and it’s a weak thesis at best. There really is no way to judge performance in a highly evolving situation, and the judgment quickly moves from who has the most talent to who appears to have the most talent or who claims to have the most talent. As I showed in my article On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees, such decisions are usually made by tertiary impressions rather than a first hand examination of performance.
Perhaps I’m obsessing about this scenario too much, but I just can’t get out of my head the damage that managers of managers cause when they start assessing employees not directly reporting to them. I call this “tagging” an employee.
In a previous post, I describe the moment where a “big boss” (the employee’s manager’s manager) meets with an employee (or even just hears something about an employee or sees a snapshot of the employee’s work) and provides an assessment of the employee. “That employee really knows what she’s doing!” “That employee doesn’t seem to have his head in it.”
The problem? There are many:
–It rates the employee on behaviors not directly related to doing the job, but it’s based on an abstracted conversation about the work or a limited impression of the employee.
–It puts the manager in the middle in a situation where it would seem appropriate to correct the employee, even when it is inappropriate.
I describe what the manager ought to do about this here. But I’m still obsessed with the peculiar angst that this kind of indirect feedback will create in the employee – even when the “feedback” is good. So before I dive into my obsession, my advice to the managers of managers out there: Don’t provide assessments on an employee. Keep it to yourself. If you are really into assessing an employee’s value, you have to do the work of direct observation of work performance.
Now, let’s look at this “feedback” from the employee’s perspective and the damage it causes in an organization:
When a big boss starts trying to identify the top performers and the bottom performers based on their limited interactions, here is a survey of the damage it causes:
Makes employees one-dimensional: The employee immediately transforms from a multi-talented, hard-working, problem-solving contributor to whatever the “tag” is. This is bad even if the tag is good! If the tag is “hard working”, it diminishes the problem-solving, multi-talented part. It also creates a cloud around what the employee does the whole time at work, and instead puts a simplistic view of the employee’s value.
Assumes that the employee is like that all the time: Similarly, if the employee does a particular thing that gets the big boss’s notice, then that is the thing that the employee has to live up to or live down. For example, if the employee does a great presentation, that is what the employee is seen as being good at – the presentation, and the employee is expected to be presenting all the time to have value. There’s no visibility into the teamwork, project management, collaboration, technical insights, or creativity that went into the presentation. Just the presentation. Then if the person is not presenting all the time, then perhaps they are slacking off? That’s what the big boss might think!
What to do when your boss gives feedback on your employee? That’s a tough one, so let’s try to unwind this mess.
Here’s the scenario:
Your employee meets with your boss for a “skip level” meeting. After the meeting, the employee’s boss’s boss (your boss) tells you what a sharp employee you have.
Or, let’s say that your boss tells you that your employee needs to “change his attitude” and “has concerns about your employee.” This is very direct feedback about the employee, and it comes from an excellent authority (your boss), and if you disagree with it, you disagree with your boss.
But this information is entirely suspect. Whether the feedback from the “big boss” is positive or negative, the only thing it reveals is how the employee performed during the meeting with the boss. And unless your employee’s job duty is to meet with your boss, it actually has nothing to do with the expected performance on the job. So if the feedback is negative, do you spend time trying to correct your employee’s behavior during the time the employee meets with the big boss, when it isn’t related to the employee’s job duties?
In addition, the big boss often prides him or herself on the ability to cut through things and come to conclusions quickly, succinctly, and immediately. The big boss will come to a conclusion about the employee based on the data provided in the one-on-one meeting, and will expect this conclusion to be corroborated by you and everyone else.
The big boss, in this process, will put a tag on the employee, whatever it is. Here are some examples of tags:
Not a go-getter
Not aware of the issues
Could be a problem
. . .or, the dreaded, ambiguous, “I’m not sure about him.”
What’s worse, since the “tag” originated with the big boss, it will likely stick.
In my previous article, I discussed how it is important that a manager not act surprised – even when the manager is surprised. In many ways, this is the essence of a good manager – someone who manages the situation, even when the situation presents surprising results.
So here’s another place where you don’t want act surprised: When you see the status of something (whatever it is) reported as “Red” or “down” or “Needs improvement.”
Perhaps you are familiar with what I’m talking about: Many organizations have a structure where they are required to present status or metrics to the management team. On the report there is an indicator as to whether something is “Green”, “Yellow” or “Red”, or whatever the scale is (On track/off track, perhaps).
It has been observed that many managers seem to bristle, panic, obsess, get angry at, or demand action when they see the dreaded “red” on the status report. Or you may have observed a manager saying, “I don’t like to see that red on the status report.” Have you ever experienced this?
This is an example of a manager managing from a deficit – and creating a deficit that is much deeper every day. It is an indicator that your manager is trying to take short cuts, and identify ways to solve problems without solving problems. This starts a vicious cycle.
Here are some consequences of this behavior of reacting surprised or negatively whenever there is something that is listed as “red”:
1. You train your employees not to show “red”, and they will cease to provide you any bad news
If a manager reacts negatively or acts surprised when there is any hint of “bad” news, the manager immediately and swiftly trains the employees never to share bad news. They may resist this training and continue to give the manager bad news. But should the manager repeat this training, the employees will successfully hide from you anything that could be bad. Problem solved! Everything will be green now.
A lot of things go wrong in business and at work. One thing that shouldn’t go wrong is the manager being the one who is surprised when things go bad. In fact, it is the specific job of the manager NOT to be the one who is surprised when things go wrong.
Have you ever had a manager who yells, “What happened?” “How could that have happened!” Then the manager gets mad at whoever could be responsible, or perhaps mad at the messenger, “I can’t believe you did this!” “What kind of incompetent crap is going on here?” “Go fix it and don’t come back until it is!” “How come this project line item has status of red?!!”
Ah, these are symptoms of a manager who acts surprised when something goes bad. So much to say on this topic! I’ll start with this: It’s the manager’s job NOT to be surprised.
The manager is supposedly the one with the greatest visibility of the work environment and output, who understands the best who is on the team, and what the team ought to be working on. The manager is the one who should know the approximate quality of the team output and what aspects of it can be better.
It is the manager’s role to know the risks of the work activity and where it could go bad. When a bad event from one of these risks manifests — whether it was a known risk or an unknown risk — it is still the manager’s job to know that this kind of stuff does happen.
When the manager is surprised by events, this is a clear indicator that the manager is managing from a deficit. In my discussion of managing from a deficit in previous articles, the manager attempts to take short cuts to managing, thereby announcing to the team that he is no manager. He is, instead, someone who was given the role of the manager, but is not performing the role of the manager.
Many managers want things to just get done. Or they want their employees to just resolve the issue. Or they want their employees to just answer the question. Or they want their employees to just stop doing something they don’t like.
However, this could be more of a symptom of the manager’s poor behaviors and less a symptom of the employees’ inability to perform. In all of these examples, the usage of the word “just” implies a need to take a short-cut to better performance. It’s also an indicator that the manager is “managing from a deficit.”
It’s a great marker – the word “just.” Check yourself each time you use it. Let’s look at some sample situations:
–The manager receives a report and says, “Just give me the high level summary.”
–The manager sees people unable to come to a recommendation and says, “Just figure it out and get back to me.”
–The manager sees in the metrics that errors are up and says, “Just do what it takes to stop making these errors.”
In these examples, the manager is making a request to get something resolved – without making any effort to resolve it. What great management! Wouldn’t it be great to have this skill?
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.