by Mary C. Schaefer

Why delivering feedback is not a one-way street

Jun 30, 2015
CareersIT LeadershipMentoring

Managers, there's more to feedback than the 'what.' The 'how' can make all the difference. When you want your employee to own the feedback and take action, make it a two-way conversation.

Now we know how useful the feedback sandwich is. We know it’s important to present feedback so others hear you. You want them to leave the conversation hopeful about going forward with something to act on.

It is important to not blurt everything out at once. Humans can only take in so much at one time–thus the importance of two-way interaction. Lead your employee through a thought process so they come along with you. In this way, they grow their own awareness and responsibility at the same time. So, let’s consider how a two-way interaction can go.

Several years ago I lead an SAP implementation project at a chemical plant. Some of my team members were shop floor employees. Most were hired in an era where you were just expected to do what you were told.

At one point two of my team members came to me about another team member, Jeremy (I’ve changed all names for this article). He repeatedly asked them for work. They were moving so fast they didn’t have time to hand anything over to him.

Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions.

Kudos to Jeremy for wanting to be useful. However, he had not yet learned, what I call, “creating your own work.” He didn’t know how to identify what he could do. How to determine priority. Where to start.

I knew Jeremy pretty well. I knew he wasn’t pretending to not know what to do. He had an admirable work ethic. Knowing this was fortunate for Jeremy and me because I approached him with an open mind.

We sat down together. He knew his teammates had discussed this with me. I was curious about what was going on.

Me: When you ask Don for work, what does he tell you?

Jeremy: To look at SAP.

Me: What goes through your mind when he says that?

Jeremy: I don’t know where to start.

[Did you hear that? He said: “I don’t know where to start.” I’m glad I didn’t launch into telling him how he needed to improve right out of the gate. Back to our story.]

Me: So you worked in Unit B. You would know what raw materials they should have on hand, given the production schedule, right?

Jeremy: Yes.

Me: What if you started there? If you looked at their inventories, you would know if the operators were using SAP right, or if they needed some follow-up training. What do you think?

Jeremy: I can do that.

I never heard from any of them about this issue again.

As you can see, I learned something when I asked a key question. Asking good questions is just one benefit of making feedback a two-way exchange. Good questions also helps employees learn to reflect on their own thinking, and over time, find their own solutions.

When it doesn’t go according to plan.

You might think I simplified the exchange with Jeremy for this post, but it went just that way. I also know it doesn’t always flow so easily. Employees aren’t going to follow your “script.” You won’t always anticipate how they will respond. Or, you do anticipate how they will respond and you dread it.

When preparing to give feedback, my clients often say to me, “I just don’t want ___ to happen.” This can sound like:

  • I don’t want my employee to get emotional.
  • I don’t want her to get angry.
  • I don’t want him to shut down.

My goal is for you to handle whatever happens. We’ll tackle that next time.