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One-to-one feedback is vital for your employees

In the past decade the Gallup organization has begun to carry out extensive surveys of the American workplace. Their “Q12” survey is probably the best designed and most statistically sound assessment of employee satisfaction in current usage. These 12 questions can give a comprehensive picture of employee attitudes across a wide range of work environments. In fact, Fortune magazine uses this survey to build its “100 Best Places to Work” annual issue.

A consistent and compelling finding of the Gallup surveys is that around 70 percent of employees say they rarely get feedback from their immediate supervisors. I am impressed that this finding has remained essentially unchanged since I began consulting two decades ago. This, in spite of countless seminars that preach that feedback improves performance. Ken Blanchard became a nationally known management guru by writing a book that can be reduced to a sentence: Give your employees timely, accurate feedback about their performance and make sure most of it is positive.

“I can live for two weeks on a good compliment”
- Mark Twain

An effective feedback process has five major elements:

  1. Choose the time and place with care. Most employees prefer private one-on-one interactions be they positive or negative. Never give negative feedback in front of peers or in public; this is a major morale killer. Always set people at ease by telling them the purpose of the conversation.

  2. Describe as succinctly as you can the behavior, situation or event; make it clear to people what you are talking about. Vagueness is a trust killer. Make sure you are prepared and be economical and focused in your comments. Blah, blah, blah usually leads to confusion and miscommunication. Just because you are the boss does not mean that you can talk at people on and on; this will probably be seen as disrespectful.

  3. When giving feedback to improve performance perhaps the major omission by managers is a failure to concretely connect the event in question to its results. People need to understand that what they do or don’t do has effects in the workplace and a characteristic of poor performers is “I don’t get this.”

  4. Probably the most important element is the tone you use in carrying out the conversation. It’s a general rule in human interaction that in most cases emotion trumps reason. Thus, it is essential that the interaction not be perceived as being punitive. Managers who are best at feedback appear low key, even casual in their approach, they see it as an everyday occurrence and they maintain a consistently neutral or positive emotional tone. Doing so precludes a defensive reaction and encourages response. When there is a negative response such managers do not allow themselves to be engaged in that manner and can usually cool down the interaction by showing interest and asking probing questions. It is never productive to get into verbal fisticuffs with an employee.

  5. The final ingredient of good feedback is the understanding that you are trying to build an effective working relationship with the person. Tom Rath is his charming little book entitled How Full Is Your Bucket? notes that positive interactions build the trusting relationships that are essential to the productive interaction of people within organizations. The essential principle in this management practice is that respectful behavior builds trust.

Unfortunately, evidence exists that reading this article is not very likely to change behavior. Although the above process appears elementary, its skilled practice requires a good deal of tacit knowledge that can only be learned through experience.

If you want to improve the feedback skills of your managers consider the following simple but effective approach. Bring a small number (seven is ideal and 12 is too many) of them together for a series of weekly skill-building meetings. Introduce the principles and have the participants practice with each other in scenarios they create based on their experience. Break them into to triads and make sure they get lot of feedback on their performance and that the group does an overall debriefing of the process. Then have them identify their direct reports into high, average and low performers. Ask them to identify two or three average performers and provide feedback to them at least twice during the week. At the next meeting debrief and coach them gradually adding all their employees to the mix, saving the low performers for last as these will be more difficult.

A process like this not only uses the key principles but actively engages each manager with her people, provides coaching and gradually builds a mutual support group. There are many details but these ingredients define the core process. The striking outcome is that about the third or fourth week the managers begin to report improved performance with the people who have received feedback as well as higher comfort levels especially with the more difficult people. Surprise, surprise.

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