What to do when employee performance feedback goes wrong

Managers can read books, get trained, practice and plan, and still your employee may toss you something you don't anticipate. But you can handle it. The key is asking good questions and really listening.

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Credit: luismolinero

When you give feedback to your employees, it’s your job to guide them toward awareness and responsibility, hope and action, one step at a time.

One component of making this two-way interaction work is to ask good questions, and carefully listen to their responses. Sometimes the conversation isn’t going to follow your plan. But you can handle it.

Several years ago, after a feedback discussion, I asked an employee, “What do you think?” I got back, “I think you think I’m an idiot.” This gave me the opportunity to tell him we were having the discussion because I wanted him to succeed.

You can handle anything too

Imagine you’re giving an employee feedback about presentation skills. You two have been talking about this for a while. She’s improving. She’s excited about that. But there’s still more work to do. You might start like this.

You: We’ve been working together on your presentation skills for a while now. You seemed a lot more confident in the meeting this week. What do you think about how you did?

Employee: I think I did pretty well. I'm better than I was a few months ago, don’t you think?

You: I do think you’ve made improvements. Definitely more eye contact, and you’re pacing’s improved. What did you notice about how the audience was responding as you talked?

Employee: Are you saying I wasn’t paying attention? I think they were with me.

You: It’s difficult to do so many things at once. I noticed some people seemed lost in the detail at certain points. Why don’t we review what you covered?

Employee: Why?

You: I know that you want to improve your presentation skills and are committed to that. And you know that will help you advance.

Employee: Well, that’s true.

You: Are you willing to look at the slides with me? We want to be sure your audience gets the important point you are making on every slide.

Employee: Okay. What if I take a first pass at re-reviewing this and then we can look at it together.

You: Perfect. When do you want to schedule?

And thus, by listening, and responding to the comments you hear, you achieve your goal, leaving your employee feeling encouraged and motivated to improve.

The benefits of mutual interaction when providing feedback

The two-way conversation gives your employees an opportunity to assess their own thinking, assumptions, and performance because of how you are coaching them. They may express their frustrations. You can manage it.

Notice what is on their minds and don't over-react. This helps minimize defensiveness. It signals to them you are on their side and at the same time they are ultimately accountable for improvement. This accountability allows them to come to their own the solutions.

Over time they coach themselves and their performance improves. Everybody wins.

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