The normal, natural reaction to negative feedback is to become defensive, a response I’ve labeled as The Freak Out.
Everyone, even the people you think do little work, wants to be seen as good – competent, hardworking, and adding value. When anyone calls our competence into question, we get defensive. Becoming defensive is an automatic response that we have to train out of ourselves.
Until the people you work with train themselves not to become visibly defensive when receiving feedback, just expect it. And be happy when you get a defensive response. It means the person is breathing and cares enough about what you’re saying to get upset.
While you can’t get rid of a defensive response to feedback, you can reduce it by following a few feedback practices. Practice these methods of giving feedback and your input will be heard and acted on, more often than not.
Employee feedback practice one: Don’t wait. Give feedback shortly after something happens. But do wait until you’re not upset. Practice the 24-hour guideline and the one week rule. If you’re upset, wait at least 24-hours to give feedback, but not longer than a week. If the feedback recipient can’t remember the situation you’re talking about, you waited too long to give feedback, and you will appear to be someone who holds a grudge.
Employee feedback practice two: Be specific. Provide examples. If you don’t have an example, you’re not ready to give feedback.
Employee feedback practice three: Praise in public. Criticize in private. Have all negative feedback discussions privately.
Employee feedback practice four: Effective feedback discussions are a dialogue; both people talk. When the feedback recipient responds defensively, don’t be thwarted by their reaction. Listen to what they have to say and keep talking. Don’t get distracted.
Employee feedback practice five: Give small amounts of feedback at a time – one or two strengths and areas for improvement during a conversation. People cannot focus on more than one or two things at a time.
Employee feedback practice six: Give feedback on the recipient’s schedule and in their workspace, if you are working in person and the recipient has a door. It will give the other person a sense of control and they will be more receptive.
Employee feedback practice seven: Talk with people – either in person or via phone. Don’t send an email or voicemail. Email is for wimps and will only damage your relationships.
Employee feedback practice eight: Prepare. Make notes of what you plan to say and practice out loud. Articulating a message and thinking about it in your head are not the same thing.
Employee feedback practice nine: Avoid The Empathy Sandwich – positive feedback before and after negative feedback. Separate the delivery of positive and negative feedback, so your message is clear.
Employee feedback practice ten: Offer an alternative. Suggest other ways to approach challenges. If people knew another way to do something, they would do it that way.
You can deal with whatever reaction to negative feedback you get. The other person’s response might make you uncomfortable, but that’s ok. You’ll survive. Try to practice the guidelines above, and if you don’t, and you ‘do it all wrong,’ at least you said something. Just opening your mouth is half the battle. When you come from a good place of truly wanting to make a difference for the other person, and you have both the trust and permission to give feedback, you really can’t go wrong.
You disagree with something someone above you said or did. How do you tell the person without actually telling him?
Lots of people think they can’t give direct feedback when talking to someone at a higher level. I’m here to tell you that that’s not true. The ability to speak freely has little to do with titles and more to do with the quality of your relationship. When you’re comfortable with people and have mutual trust, you can say (almost) anything, regardless of titles and levels. But that’s not the true purpose of today’s blog. So I’m going to stick to the topic at hand –what to say when you feel like you can’t say very much.
When you don’t have the relationship to say what you really think, manage up by asking a question instead. Engage the person in a conversation. At some point during the conversation, you’ll be able to say what you think.
For example, you question a decision but don’t want to overtly say you question the decision.
Here’s how the conversation could go:
“I wasn’t involved in the conversations to select our new payroll software. Can you give me a little history? What had us choose our current provider?”
“What software features were important when selecting the software?”
“What problem were we trying to solve that drove the need to make a change?”
“What do you like about the software we picked? What don’t you like?”
** Obviously this is meant to be a discussion, not an interrogation. Ask one question at a time and see where the conversation goes. You may ask all of these questions and you may ask only one.
The point is to gather more information. Manage up by seeking to understand before you express an opinion. As the conversation progresses, you might see opportunities to express your point of view.
Here are three suggestions if you’re going to practice the technique of asking questions as a way to manage up and eventually give feedback:
1. When you ask a question, come from a place of genuine curiosity. If you aren’t truly curious and asking questions is just a technique you found in some blog, it will show.
2. Watch your tone of voice. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you have a tone issue.
3. Be patient. Asking questions may feel easier than giving direct feedback, but it also takes more patience and time.
As the conversation progresses, you might be asked for your opinion. Before saying what you think, remember, no one likes to be told that s/he is wrong. And the person you’re talking to likely had a hand in making the decision you’re questioning. Be careful not to judge.
Instead of overtly judging, consider saying something like:
“I think the new system has potential and also has some limitations. Do you want feedback as we use the system and get to know it better?”
“What specifically would you like feedback on? What are you not looking for feedback on?”
“What’s the best way to provide input and to whom?”
You can speak more freely when you have the relationship to do so and have permission. Until you have both, earn the right to give feedback by asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity. And only provide your point of view when you’re asked and are certain you have all the information to defend your position.
In other words, employees need attention, and attention requires time – time many managers may not feel they have.
Here is a five-step formula for employee retention and employee engagement:
Get to know employees better and differently.
Have meaningful, one-on-one meetings [at least] monthly.
Give balanced feedback as work is done.
Ask for and be open to feedback.
Create opportunities for employees to do the work that interests them most.
Managers, how do you make time for these meetings when you are busy and have several direct reports?
Meet for 15-30 minutes.
Ask direct reports to create an agenda and run the meetings.
Ask direct reports to send follow-up notes of decisions and plans made during meetings. Give some of the accountability away.
If meetings get cancelled, reschedule as soon as possible. Direct reports take cancelled meetings personally. Cancelled meetings that are not rescheduled send the message that managers don’t care about employees and their careers.
Employees, if your manager doesn’t schedule meetings with you:
Ask permission to put a monthly meeting on your manager’s calendar.
Provide rationale for why you want to meet – to get your manager’s feedback and ensure you’re focused on the right work.
Ask permission to reschedule meetings when they get cancelled.
Don’t take cancelled meetings personally.
Offer to meet with your manager via the phone when it’s convenient for him/her. Leverage commute and travel time.
Employees need time with their managers. Meaningful discussions and work result in employee engagement and employee retention. So managers, make the time, even when you don’t feel you have it. Ask questions you don’t ask now. Give feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. Give your employees an opportunity to do the work that interests them most. And watch your employee engagement and employee retention improve. And if your manager doesn’t do these things, politely and persistently ask. You won’t get what you don’t ask for. We are all 100% accountable for our careers.
Every time I ignore the red flags I see when interviewing a candidate, or when I feel an employee is struggling, or a project is off track, I pay the price. Every single time.
You interview a candidate who has had six jobs in the last year. You think, “Maybe this one will work out.” No it won’t. Move on. You haven’t gotten an update from a project team in over a month. You think, “This group is typically reliable. Things are probably fine.” Check in. Even the most diligent employees need accountability and attention.
They call them red flags for a reason. If you suspect a problem, there likely is one. Don’t just wait and ‘see how things go.’ Make a hard decision, get more information, or get involved. Wait and see is often a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes we don’t get involved because we don’t have the time or want to focus on other things. Other times we just don’t trust or listen to our gut.
Here are a six steps you can take to help listen to yourself and ensure you don’t overlook or ignore red flags:
1. Become very clear about your desired outcome. Decide what you want.
2. Eliminate distractions. Get quiet, aka, still your mind.
3. Think about the situation at hand. Weigh the facts and your options.
4. Decide without belaboring.
5. Act on your decision.
6. Don’t look back. Your initial decision is usually the right one.
Trusting and listening to ourselves can be hard. Perhaps it’s the fear of making a mistake or being wrong. Chances are you’re right. So pay attention to the red flags, trust yourself, and listen to your gut.
Think about all the people and situations that frustrate you. Now consider what you’re asking for. My hunch is, you’re getting what you ask for.
While most of us aren’t great at telling people when they violate our expectations, we’re not any better at asking for what we want. You might be afraid of appearing demanding or may not feel you have the right to make requests. When you tell people what you expect, you make their lives easier. Think about when someone invites you to their house for a socially-distanced, backyard barbeque. If you have any manners (and I’m sure you do), you ask what you can bring. When the other person says nothing, it makes your job (to be a good guest) harder. Now you have to guess what the other person wants. It would be so much easier if he would just tell you. This also applies to birthday gifts and where to meet for lunch. When people tell you what they want as a gift and where they want to eat, you don’t have to guess and they are easier to please.
It’s much easier to live and work with people when we know what they expect from us. And setting expectations is always easier than giving negative feedback. Negative feedback implies someone did something wrong. And no one likes to be told he is wrong. Setting expectations provides a road map to success, making it easier to win with you.
Here are a few phrases to make setting expectations easier:
Setting expectations example one: Consider saying, “I need time to get settled when I start working in the morning. Will you hold all questions and requests until 10:00 am?” You’re not telling someone she barrages you with questions before you’ve opened your laptop in the morning; you’re simply asking for what you need.
Setting expectations example two: You could say, “I like to have things done well before they are due. Will you send me all input for the weekly status report by Wednesday of each week so I have a few days to review your input before I have to submit it?” You’re not telling the person that working with him requires a weekly fire drill; you’re simply making a non-judgmental request.
Setting expectations example three: You could ask, “Would it be possible to touch base once a week via phone 10 minutes before you officially login so I can get your input on projects?” You’re not telling the person she is impossible to get time with; you’re simply proposing an idea.
One of the keys to getting what you want is make requests in a neutral, non-judgmental way. The more you ask for and the more specific your requests, the easier you are to work with. What you need and want will be clear; there will be no guessing. People may choose to ignore your requests and violate your expectations, and then you’ll provide feedback. But start with making clear and specific requests, and see how many fewer feedback conversations you need to have.
When my son started pre-school, I attended new parent orientation. I had never sent my son to school and I had lots of questions. I asked my questions at the orientation; I was the only parent who asked questions. The mom sitting next to me wasn’t even sure she qualified for the program. Her child was enrolled in a parent-tot program; parents had to attend with their child and couldn’t send a caregiver. The mom worked full-time and couldn’t attend herself. Even though she wasn’t sure her child could participate in the program, she didn’t ask any questions. It was just me asking all the questions. By the end if the evening, I could feel the other parents’ eyes on me, wishing I’d shut up so they could go home and relieve their babysitter.
One of managers’ and employers’ biggest complaints is the inability to hire critical thinkers – employees who question. I hear this complaint all the time. Yet we often find the people who ask questions irritating and bothersome. “Why do they have to look for what’s wrong? Why do they have to question?”
Questioners are often seen as boat rockers, challenging the status quo. They are ‘difficult’.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t hire people who think critically, who don’t question.
I’m not talking about people who can’t make a decision and are constantly asking managers to validate their solutions or employees who use managers as google rather than doing their own research. I’m talking about squelching the counter-point-of-view.
If you want employees who identify and solve problems and create new products and ways of working, then you need to reward those who question.
One of the reasons employees may not ask questions is the fear of appearing as if they don’t know. Who likes to admit they don’t know something at work? Not knowing makes us appear less valuable, less reliable. It takes strength to admit, “I don’t know.” Managers and leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see. We need to ask our own questions visibly and regularly. We need to admit when we don’t know. We need to be willing to be wrong and to let others see it.
There is an old workplace adage, you get what you reward. Does your organization have an award for the employee who asks the most questions? If not, create one. Do you recognize employees publicly who are willing to point out inefficient processes and costly systems? Do you have a reward system in place for employees who fail trying to fix a problem or create something new? If we get what we reward, what are we rewarding?
Starting a new job is like the first day of school. It’s scary. Who will I have lunch with? How do I make copies and get reimbursed for expenses? Who do I need a good working relationship with? Starting a new job virtually is even more challenging. Who are these people I work with and how do I reach them?
We need to help new employees acclimate to people and processes, and this introduction increases tenfold when starting a job virtually.
“People leave managers not jobs” is an old phrase. I’ll widen the net a bit – people leave companies, not jobs. People unhappy at one company often take a similar job at a different company. They like being an accountant, auditor, marketing manager, they just didn’t like working for __________ (fill in the blank) at __________ (fill in the blank).
Here are six practices for helping new, virtual employees acclimate and feel at home quickly:
Focus on relationships first and workplace goals second.
I onboard all new employees – virtual or in-person – with a handful of Team Building and Manage People Candor Questions. My first meeting with employees has nothing to do with goals or objectives. Instead, we talk about working-style preferences and pet peeves. We get to know each other and build trust. As Stephen Covey said in his book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Deposit into the emotional bank account.” And as William Ury said in his book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, “Go slow to go fast.”
2. Make it safe and easy to ask questions.
Few people like to admit they don’t know something. I’d rather have my new employees pick up the phone or email me with a question than spend 60-minutes of frustration searching for an answer.
Ask, “What questions do you have” each time you meet and wait longer than you think you should for the answer. People always have questions. Make room for them to ask.
3. Have multiple people train new employees.
Training a new employee develops the person doing the training and builds immediate relationships.
4. Set up a system for people to ‘interview’ others throughout the organization – a virtual meet and greet of sorts.
5. Have team meetings on video.
I know, I know, people are tired of video meetings. Make them short, sweet, and regular.
6. Meet one-on-one weekly with new employees.
I suggest weekly meetings for at least the first six months, and protect the meeting time. If one-on-one’s with employees get cancelled, reschedule immediately. Cancelling meetings with direct reports without rescheduling sends the message that the direct report isn’t important.
Working with people virtually isn’t that different from working with people in person. Pick up the phone. Use video. Talk with people weekly. Ask questions. Wait for answers. Make sure new employees ‘meet’ and are exposed to a lot of people throughout the organization. People leave companies, not jobs.
The most frequent question I’m getting these days is how to manage business relationships virtually. Here is the short answer – talk to people. Pick up the phone. You don’t need to have video calls, if you don’t want to. Showering is a personal choice. You just need to talk to people.
People need human contact. We even need to connect with the people we don’t like – when we work for and with them. Text and email don’t replace talking to people.
We stopped talking to each other long before so many people began working from home. Email has been overused for years. We emailed the people we sat next to at work. We exchanged 20 emails on one topic rather than picking up the phone.
We ask permission to call our friends to catch up. Texting a friend to ask, “Is it ok if I call you tomorrow morning?” is the norm. We exchange 50 texts to determine where and when to meet for lunch.
Maybe people thinking email and texting is easier, less intrusive, faster. Less intrusive, yes. Easier, sometimes. Faster, no.
Call the people you work with. Ask for the best time to call, if you like. Check in on them. Ask how they’re doing. Yes, there may be a crying child or a barking dog in the background. It’s ok. Calls don’t have to be long. People just need contact. They need to know that you care and are ‘in it’ with them. And while you’re on the phone, get questions answered in five minutes rather than with 25 emails.
It’s been eleven months that many people are working from home who would ordinarily go into an office. Some people are content with the fancy-on-the-top, jammies on the bottom video-work life, others are feeling lonely and isolated. Some employees have a private, uninterrupted work setting, others are trying to find a quiet place to participate in meetings while a partner and kids are also at home. Working from home amid distractions and loneliness is tricky and we need to be able to talk about it.
Managers, your employees don’t want to tell you they’re struggling, lonely, distracted, or can’t make certain meetings or deadlines. They want you to think everything is fine, that they’re fine. Who likes to admit to their boss that they can’t keep up or are unhappy at work?
If a manager loves working from home and has a quiet, uninterrupted work environment, it may be easy to miss employees’ challenges. Managers need to cross the line and ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t.
Don’t assume employees are fine. Don’t assume employees will tell you if they’re not. They likely won’t. You need to ask and make it easy and safe to tell you the truth.
Managers, ask employees these questions:
What’s your work environment like?
What constraints are you under?
What’s a realistic work schedule right now?
What do you want me to know?
What do you need?
It may seem like it’s too late to ask. It’s not. It’s never too late. Simply be honest. It could sound something like, “I wanted to check in and see how you’re doing working from home. I want to ask some questions so I can support you. I wish I’d asked before. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Managers who are willing to tell employees they wish they’d done something differently earn loyalty and trust for showing vulnerability and humanity. Strong managers admit mistakes.
If you’re nervous that employees will delve into arenas that are too personal, set parameters for the conversation. It’s ok to set boundaries when asking questions. You could say, “I want to talk about some of the constraints you may be under working from home. I’m sorry I didn’t ask before. Let’s focus on things I can support you with and stay away from items I can’t help with like finances and personal relationships.”
Then be prepared to help employees problem solve. Maybe employees need a different work schedule or different deadlines or deliverables. Maybe employees need help setting expectations with peers and clients around when they can and can’t attend meetings.
Make it safe to talk about how employees are really doing and what they need to be successful in today’s circumstances. Tell employees that you really want to know, you’re sorry you didn’t ask before, and that it’s safe to tell the truth. Then problem solve with employees. And ask the same questions periodically. Make talking about work environment, schedule, and expectations a regular conversation.
Organizations are working hard to retain employees. Employees are watching how their organization’s leaders and managers work, and often make career decisions based on the hours the most senior people keep. Not a recipe for retaining employees.
Many employees pay particular attention to how often managers and senior leaders take time off and whether or not leaders attend meetings and respond to emails while they’re ‘off.’ Employees observe the late nights that leaders and managers put in and the emails sent at 11:00 pm and on the weekends. I’ve heard lots of employees say, “If I need to work like my boss works to get ahead in this organization, I’m not interested.”
Managers, one of the keys to retaining employees is to communicate expectations. If you’re available while you’re on vacation, but don’t expect employees to do the same, set that expectation. If you send an email outside of regular business hours but don’t expect employees to respond until the next business day, tell them so. They don’t know. Many employees assume that if you email them at night, you expect a reply.
Instead of allowing employees to make assumptions about what managers do and don’t expect, set clear expectations. Be overt and clear. Tell employees, “I work most evenings and weekends, but don’t expect you to do so. And I work these hours because I enjoy it, not because I have to. If I email you outside of regular business hours, I am not expecting you to reply.” Retaining good employees begins during the interview process when initial expectations are set.
Managers, if you expect employees to check and respond to emails outside of regular business hours and to be available while on vacation, tell candidates during the interview process. If working long hours is a criteria for promotion, set that expectation. It’s completely fine to expect long hours and for employees to be accessible outside of regular business hours. There is nothing wrong with either expectation. There is only a problem if employees don’t know that’s the expectation.
Employees, if your manager emails you outside of regular business hours and she doesn’t tell you whether or not she expects you to reply, ask. Simply say, “I often receive emails outside of regular business hours. How will I know when you need me to reply?” Likewise, if you notice your manager emails you on vacation, you can say, “I typically hear from you when you’re on vacation. Are you expecting me to check in while I’m off?”
The need to ask questions and set expectations goes both ways. Don’t wait to be told. Ask.
Managers and employees, ask these Candor Questions about working style preferences to aid in retaining employees:
How do you feel about being contacted outside of regular business hours?
If I need to reach you over a weekend or in the evening, what method is best?
Would you prefer I text you so you don’t have to check your email outside of business hours?
What time is too early and too late to call, text, and/or email?
Ask more. Assume less and make retaining employees easier.