Tips for how managers should use indirect sources of information about employees

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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.”

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Bonus! Six more reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information is risky

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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.

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Three reasons why giving performance feedback based on indirect information doesn’t work

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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.)

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What managers can do about “intangible human-based artifacts”

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This is the latest in a series of articles on what inputs a manager should provide performance feedback on.  The three best sources are practice sessions, direct on-the-job observation, and “tangible artifacts”.   The reason these are the best input to provide performance feedback on is that these are the closest to the performance, hence performance feedback is possible.  The intent of providing performance feedback is that this feedback will help performance improve. The better the feedback, the more likely the performance is going to improve.

It’s a fairly simple model that often gets messed up.  Here’s why:

After “tangible artifacts,” there the are lots of other thing that employees produce —  and managers receive a lot of input about an employee from these – but, as the label implies, these are less tangible (see this article for a general overview) and therefore less useful for providing performance feedback on.  So let’s talk about perhaps the most common of these inputs, what I call “intangible human-based” artifacts and how managers should use them.

Intangible, human-based artifacts:

There are intangible artifacts related to the people they work with that an employee produces.   These are things like “relationships” or “valued customers” or “buy-in from a partner” or “sales.”   These are all human-based outcomes that the employee can “produce,” and in many jobs, these are the thing that the employee must produce.

Since these are human-based “artifacts”, a manager looking at the artifact – i.e., talking to the person or seeing the person’s comments from a survey — is seeing only an indicator of performance, and not the performance itself. Here’s what I mean:

Imagine walking in at the end of a dance performance.  The performance is over and you see the crowd stand up and clap and yell, “Bravo!”  The dancer created the intangible human-based artifact of the “delighted audience.”  Awesome!

This is clearly an indicator that the dance performance went well, but you cannot provide performance feedback to the dancer.   You can comment on the audience’s reaction, “Wow, the crowd really loved the performance!”   But you are still perhaps curious as to what the performance looked like, and the best you can do is inquire to the dancer, “Did you do all of the steps as we discussed?”  It’s better to watch the actual performance so you can say, “I loved that massive jump you did during the finale – such extension!”

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Areas of focus in providing performance feedback based on direct observation: Tangible artifacts

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I advocate that managers provide performance feedback using direct observation as much as possible.  In my previous articles, I recommend that managers set up practice environments and attempt to observe the performance directly to understand how an employee performs.  I feel that if this is not done in your work environment, this is bad management design.

There is a third form of “direct observation” a manager can use to provide performance feedback: tangible artifacts.

When an employee does their job, they create all sorts of “artifacts” – the things they are supposed to produce.  These can be things such as a project plan, software code, an analysis, an engineering schematic, a recording of a customer service call, a plate of food, etc.   I call these things tangible artifacts.  If you can print it out or touch it, then it is a tangible artifact.  So email would be considered a potential tangible artifact.  It is basically something that the person produces, whether digital or physical.

With tangible artifacts, the manager can provide performance feedback to the employee.  In many cases this is a great source of direct observation of the employee’s performance.  The manager can sit down with the employee, observe the artifact, and say what it is that is good or should be changed about future artifacts.   If it a call center agent, the manager can listen to a recent call by the agent, and discuss what was correctly done and what should be done differently.  The manager can also look at the “artifact” of what the agent did in the Customer Relation Management system, and provide feedback on this.  In a restaurant, the manager can taste the food and look at the presentation of the foot, and provide feedback on what the employee did that created the results.  Too much salt?

There are times when the artifact is so far off the mark, it is hard to determine what the employee did to create it.  If this is the case, then the observation of the artifact is not direct enough, and more direct observation is needed. Read more

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

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When to provide performance feedback using direct observation: Practice sessions

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In my previous article, I discuss how managers tend to rely on indirect sources of information to provide feedback, rather than direct sources of information.  This creates a common mistake for managers.  They have to rely on some form of hearsay about the employee, and then they provide feedback on what the hearsay says.  It is only an assumption that the hearsay is correct, and, for this reason, employees generally don’t like getting “performance feedback” on such hearsay.  Also, the feedback tends to not make any sense.

In today’s article, I’d like to discuss how to increase the amount of performance feedback based on direct observation.

Here are three “sources” of direct observation that a manager can engage in:

  1. Practice of the performance
  2. Direct observation of behaviors while they are being performed
  3. Artifacts that provide evidence of the performance

Let’s talk about “practice of the performance.”  Not many managers consider this an option or utilize this, but this is a rich and useful source of providing performance feedback.  Imagine an employee needing to do a critical presentation.  The manager can improve the chances of success by scheduling a “practice” session of the presentation, in this case, “the performance”.

There are many advantages to this:

–The performer practices and gets better, both by practicing and by getting feedback

–The performer gets performance feedback that doesn’t get conflated with evaluation, since it isn’t the actual performance.  That is, the performance feedback is “safer.”

–The performance feedback is specific to the performance and immediately given.   You can stop the “practice” at any time and give feedback.  That makes it as specific and immediate as possible, and increases the chances that the feedback will be behavior-based.

–The performer and the manager are aligned in what the expected performance is

–The manager has “skin in the game” for the performance

And it doesn’t have to be only on “big events” like a presentation. You could have a manager sit down with a software developer to see how they perform some of the expected tasks in a non-production environment.  If the software is doing it right, the manager can say, “you’re doing it right.”  Performance feedback is provided and everyone is happy and aligned.   If there are some behaviors that can be corrected, the manager can provide that feedback. Read more

What inputs should a manager provide performance feedback on?

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If you are a manager, you get lots of inputs in regards to how your employee is performing.  Let’s do a quick review of some of these places:

  1. Direct Observation of Employee Behaviors
  2. Employee Output and Artifacts (emails, presentations, documents, code, tangible items)
  3. Peer Feedback
  4. Customer Feedback
  5. Employees’ Manager of Manager Feedback
  6. Metrics tied to employee output (customer satisfaction scores, number of items produced, number of sales made, number of contracts negotiated etc.)

Now, what does the manager do about it?  Does the manager provide performance feedback on all of these inputs?

No.

The manager should give performance feedback on only the top two – Direct Observation and Employee Output and Artifacts.

The remainder are all indirect sources of information about an employee’s performance. Let’s look at them:

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The value of providing expectations: Performance feedback proliferates and becomes more artful

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I’ve written several articles lately about providing expectations to your team on how to perform.  These articles describe how to increase the artfulness of providing expectations or setting expectations for behavior.  For example, the expectations should:

– reflect team input

– be set earlier rather than later

– include standards of performance where documented

–provided general guardrails of behavior

– should attempt to tie into the larger strategy

I’ve also written articles about how providing performance feedback to your team as a key management skill.  Now let’s take a look at an example of how providing expectations can help you in providing performance feedback.

1.   Performance feedback you provide happens more naturally, immediately and specifically

If you have provided expectations for how the team works together, and the guardrails of behavior are established in some form, you now have a context and standard of performance to start any performance feedback discussion when you see the need for someone to change what they are doing.  Let’s take a look at a performance feedback example:

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Examples of using expectations to improve your performance feedback

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The Manager by Designsm blog writes about the art of providing performance feedback.  That’s because performance feedback is a fundamental skill needed for managers to perform their jobs as managers.

One important aspect of providing feedback is that it is based on some sort of standard, a bar that has been set, or a series of expectations of performance.  So let’s talk about it!

In my prior article, I offer providing expectations as an alternative to giving public feedback.  But there are more advantages to setting expectations than being perceived as a forward, clear thinking manager who knows what she wants and how to get there.

I suppose that’s reason enough, but there are more reasons to hone your skills at providing expectations!

Providing expectations also give you the ability to give performance feedback more effectively.

The formula is simple: If you’ve set a performance bar in advance, when you give feedback to your employee you can now measure against that expected performance.

What’s amazing is how infrequently this is performed by managers.  So I hereby set the performance expectations to managers:  Have you set performance expectations to your employees?  If so, great!  You are now ahead of the game.

Let’s look at examples of identifying expectations for performance prior to having to give feedback:

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