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!
In my previous post, I described a common scenario and the mess it makes:
An employee meets with the big boss (the manager’s manager) in what is often called a “skip level” one-on-one. Or the big boss sees – or hears about — some output of an employee, representing a small fraction of the employee’s output. The big boss then makes a judgment on the employee – what I call a “tag” on the employee. That tag now sticks on the employee. It creates a big mess that puts the manager in a bind – how do you address this employee’s tag?
Here are tips for what the manager caught in the middle can do to handle the tag – whether good or bad.
1. Keep the tag in mind and wait for observed behaviors that are consistent with “the tag”
Ok, if the manager’s manager (“big boss”) is so keen at identifying employee’s essence and value, then surely there will be plenty of opportunities to observe directly the performance of the employee that has earned that tag. Whether the tag is “negative attitude” or “rock star”, the manager needs to wait for opportunities to see behaviors that fit with this tag, and correct those behaviors.
If the manager is keeping a performance log on the employee, these trends should manifest if they are correct, and fail to appear should they be incorrect.
2. Ignore what your manager says and do your job of managing
Almost the same as the point above, but subtly different. It doesn’t matter what the boss’s boss says. If you are managing your employee, work with your employee to make sure he meets performance expectations, provide feedback that drives to the desired behaviors, then, if the employee is performing the job duties according to expectations, then it kind of doesn’t matter what the boss’s boss says. Your assessment is based on better data and you can justify it.
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.
I’m a big advocate for managers to give performance feedback to their employees. But the performance feedback has to be of good quality. So let’s remove the sources of bad quality performance feedback. One of these is what I call “indirect sources” of information. These include customer feedback, feedback from your boss about your employee, the employee’s feedback. These are all sources of information about your employee – and provide useful information, but they are not sources of performance feedback.
In previous articles, further outlined what counts as direct source of information about an employee’s performance (here, here, and here). And in my prior article, I describe how indirect sources are, by definition, vague, time-delayed, and colored by value judgments, making them feedback sources that inherently produce bad performance feedback when delivered to the employee.
There are more reasons a manager should hesitate using indirect sources of info as “feedback.” Let’s go through them.
1. Have to spend a lot of time getting the facts straight
Let’s say your boss tells you that one of your employees, Carl, did a “bad job during a meeting.” The natural tendency is to give feedback to Carl about his performance, using the boss’s input. When sharing feedback from this indirect source, you will need to go through a prolonged phase of getting the facts straight. First you have to figure out the context (what was the meeting about?), then you have to figure out what the employee did, usually relying on some combination of what the feedback provider (not you) observed, which, is typically not given well, and what the employee says he did. This usually takes a long time, and by the time you’ve done this, you still aren’t sure as to what the actual behaviors were, but an approximation of the behaviors from several sources. So the confidence in feedback of what to do differently will be muted and less sure.
In my previous articles, I advocate that managers provide performance feedback based on direct observation. This way, the feedback is more likely to be specific, immediate, and behavior-based. All good things. The best sources are observation during practice, direct observation during a performance, and tangible artifacts.
Yet, managers receive lots and lots of data about employees’ performance from indirect sources: Other employees, customer feedback, the “big boss.” I generally advocate that managers refrain from “giving feedback” based on indirect sources of information, because they have some serious disadvantages:
(This article uses examples of the boss’s boss giving feedback about an employee, but the same goes for peer feedback or customer feedback given to a manager.)
1. Indirect feedback tends to provide non-specific summaries and vague generalizations.
Let’s say your boss likes one of your employees a lot. She tells you, “John really nailed it this week.” This is great! But you have no idea what it is that John did that earned this praise. Giving feedback to John on this – even when positive — is kind of awkward: “I have some feedback for you, John. Sarah says that you ‘nailed it’!” It’s great to give the praise, but without the specifics, it doesn’t make much sense. John will say to himself, “Okay, I’m not sure what I did, but I’ll take it.”
In the negative example, when the boss says, “John is screwing up, do something about it,” the manager is in the situation where it seems like performance feedback is necessary, but on what? Even though it is “from the boss,” recognize that it’s incomplete and vague. (If the boss’s boss were a “manager by design,” this kind of non-specific feedback wouldn’t be given, and would be more behavior-based.)