Last week, one of our clients asked me, “This human relations stuff is all well and good, but how do I talk to someone when they messed up?”
This isn’t an enjoyable task, but a necessary one if we expect to manage well. Assuming it’s not a major offense where discipline or termination is on the table, here are five things you’ll want to consider in your conversation.
1. Check your expectations.
About half the time that someone has underperformed, I’ve concluded that I played at least a mentionable role in contributing to it. After all, if I’m not clear on my expectations in advance, how can I expect them to be met?
Whatever contribution you’ve made doesn’t necessary excuse bad performance, but it should place in context how you start the dialogue and what actions you take after it. Yes, the person you manage should have asked for more clarification…but if you gave few or no expectations, you need to own up to that too and, if your contribution was major, admit to it.
2. Get to the point.
Conventional wisdom says that tough feedback should start with saying something positive about a person’s performance, then give the negative feedback, followed by additional praise at the end. It’s so popular, it’s even acquired a name: sandwich feedback.
It stinks. Everybody knows this model and expects it (so people listen for the other shoe to drop when you start in with sudden praise). Also problematic, people sometimes only hear the positive and downplay the criticism: “Oh wow, my manager just gave me positive feedback on several things and only had one area of improvement.”
Worst of all, it’s apparent to almost anyone that the positive feedback was only given to work up to bad news. It’s struck me as generic and manipulative when it’s been done to me. Unless you have no relationship at all the with the person you need to give feedback to, get to the point up front.
3. Define the problem.
I’ve seen managers so eager to be done with tough conversations that they glaze over the details of exactly what happened. They mention their dissatisfaction and then feel like they’re done.
It’s not enough to tell someone you are disappointed or that their performance isn’t up to par. If you’ve decided to give feedback, the responsibility is first on you to demonstrate what didn’t work through a specific example, clear data, or a thorough explanation of what expectations were not met.
Failure to do that well is actually worse than saying nothing.
“The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” -Pierre Martineau
Doing this well doesn’t mean the other party will welcome the conversation. But, it will clearly define what’s wrong and set the stage for different actions next time.
4. Clarify future actions.
It’s pointless to revisit the past if it doesn’t lead to a clear actions for the future. Once you’ve defined the problem, the conversation should transition to prevention, opportunity, or lessons learned, depending on the situation.
Be sure both parties are clear on what should happen going forward. If both of you contributed in some way, both of you should have action items. If people aren’t walking away with notes and actions, you’re not looking forward.
5. Affirm the person.
In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein (2004) famously reported that Tom Watson, past CEO of IBM, summoned an employee to his office to address a bad decision made by the employee costing several million dollars. After the end of the conversation, expecting to be fired, he heard instead from Watson, “Not at all, young man; we have just spent a couple of million dollars educating you” (p. 255).
When mistakes are made, we need to address them. Yet, a person’s mistaken action should be separated from the person themselves. If your organization expects to continually engage and develop a valuable employee, affirm them as a person without excusing the action.
[reminder]What have you found to be helpful when giving someone critical feedback?[/reminder]