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Dear Manager, Giving Critical Employee Feedback Is Not As Scary As It Seems

David Mizne
David Mizne

It all began with an article published in Harvard Business Review in March of 2016 entitled, “Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees”. When we delve into this a bit deeper we’ll see that it’s not a matter of comfort, it’s a matter of fear. People often avoid confrontation because they are afraid of rejection, have had negative past experiences, or are unsure of their needs, values, or beliefs.

An Interact survey of 500+ employees and over 600 managers found that 69% of managers are often uncomfortable communicating with employees. A smaller (yet still alarming) percentage of managers are not comfortable with recognizing employee achievements, giving clear directions, and being vulnerable. Over one-third of managers (37%) are uncomfortable with giving crtical employee feedback that may trigger a negative response from the employee.

In January of 2018, The Ladders and Quartz both ran follow-ups to the survey as if the results were not almost two years old. Clearly a deficit in quality feedback from managers is still a concern. In the aforementioned article, Quartz author Corinne Purtill references Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace Report:

Organizations are realizing that more frequent, ongoing conversations may be the missing link in performance management, but there is a huge caveat: Managers have to understand how to have effective performance conversations with employees…Unfortunately, Gallup research suggests that many managers struggle in this area.

Want to understand how to have more frequent and effective performance conversations with employees? Give 15Five a try!

A couple of years ago, we surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across the US and found that over 80% of them would rather join a company that values “open communication” than one that offers great perks such as top health plans, free food, and gym memberships.

Today’s employees crave feedback. They want to learn and grow personally and professionally. But many managers who are charged with facilitating that growth and development shy away from providing a constant stream of positive and critical employee feedback, recognition, or even clear performance expectations. So why do so many managers struggle with communication?

Employee feedback can seem scary

According to “mental strength” expert Amy Morin, fear of confrontation is often based on false assumptions. We can fear confrontation because it triggers painful experiences from our past. Perhaps a parent or other authority figure from our formative years was overly confrontational, angry, or even violent.

But there is a risk inherent in withholding critical employee feedback. When managers fear confrontation for too long, they stew on things instead of resolving them. Everything an employee then does fits into a story about who they are, and over time it becomes impossible for managers to divorce the story from the person.

People have habits and patterns sure, but they are also dynamic and malleable, especially after they are gently made aware of the impact they are having on others. The trouble is, if we are annoyed by someone’s behavior or disappointed by their performance and we are too afraid to confront them at the outset, we often blow up at them for a relatively minor mistake or undesirable behavior down the road. It can be exceedingly difficult to repair a relationship after such an interaction.

According to Amy, we need to check our assumptions :

In reality, confrontation is healthy. There are many kind—and assertive—ways to speak up and express your opinion, and doing so might improve the situation more than you ever even imagined.

Employees can smell fear

Another recent Quartz piece entitled, “You Will Never Be a Great Leader Until You Conquer This Fear” draws a line in the sand. According to the author, Melody Wilding, a manager is required to provide critical employee feedback. They must do so to avoid becoming the office pushover which erodes their self-esteem. And workplaces where employees don’t receive feedback have issues with poor employee engagement and lack of trust.

This problem may be bigger than just your personal experiences. In a highly competitive workplace where mistakes are not tolerated, employees are unlikely to speak up. Even sitting down with an employee to discuss an issue will have them on edge. So set the tone that you are there to coach and support them, not to punish and chastise.

According to Melody, language is important. She suggests talking about how something made you feel or what your impression was. Don’t use the second person voice as in, “You failed to complete that report for the last two weeks in a row!” Try using first person: “I received an email from our client that they haven’t received an update on their account for some time.”

Better yet, frame comments as questions with a supportive tone: “I want you to consider me as a resource for you to do your best work and grow in your role. Is there anything you are stuck on? How can I help?” Now an employee can feel safe to share a perceived failure because you have framed your relationship as a partnership.

Be direct with people

It may seem at times like beating around the bush is the easiest way to relate to an employee. Perhaps that’s to avoid a negative reaction, or to have your message more easily received.

Being indirect is a disservice to you and to the employee. People want assertive leadership and want a manager who has their back. Being confident emboldens them to be their best. But most of all, being direct sends the message that you trust them and that you are trustworthy.

According to Gallup, you can maintain trust by ensuring that employees feel a sense of belonging to you.  This begins by addressing basic workplace needs like clarifying expectations:

As the manager, you must provide your … workers the right work to do, the appropriate amount of work to do and performance expectations for their work. Setting these clear expectations indicates your attention to, understanding of and respect for their job role, helping employees succeed.

A great way to clarify expectations is by setting quarterly Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) with every member of your team. When employees understand the top priorities from the top to the bottom of the organization, they can work confidently. They know that they are contributing to big picture goals. This also makes it easier to give critical feedback later on, because instead of discussing your perspective on their performance you have hard data to back up the conversation.

It takes some internal work to dispel our fears, even the fear of confronting an employee about their performance. So when taking that first step to provide feedback, start by entering the right frame of mind.

Your state of being is important, even if the interaction does not take place in person. Consider the outcome you are trying to create. (Note that it should be to achieve a greater connection between you and the employee even if the feedback you are about to give is highly critical.) Then go confidently forth knowing that your people crave your feedback and your leadership.

David Mizne is Marketing Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David’s articles have appeared on The Next Web & TalentCulture. Follow him @davidmizne.

Image Credit: Andreas Klassen on Unsplash