No one likes
giving people negative feedback. Giving negative feedback often makes both the feedback
deliverer and the recipient feel badly. To make everyone feel better, we dress negative
feedback up with pickles and relish, otherwise known as The Empathy Sandwich.
Sandwich in action: “You’re doing really great. Now you did almost cost the
company $50,000, but in general, things are going great.”
The Empathy Sandwich
is plain wrong, wrong, wrong. It leaves people unclear, wondering if there is a
problem. Instead of softening negative feedback with positive platitudes on
both ends, tell people you’ll be providing positive and negative feedback as things
happen and then separate both types of feedback.
how you can set the expectation that you’ll be providing balanced feedback:
feedback to people you manage: “As your manager, my job is to help you be successful. As a
result, I’ll tell you what I see, as I see it. I’ll give you both positive and upgrade
(negative) feedback in a timely way. Because if I don’t, you’ll learn nothing
from working with me.”
the way to give feedback to peers and those at a higher level: “We see each other work and are in a unique position
to provide each other with feedback. If you see me do something really great or
not so great, I’d like to know. I promise to be receptive.”
feedback and avoiding The Empathy Sandwich: When you give feedback
separate the positive from the negative. You could say something like, “I want
to talk about a few things today. Here are some things that are going well… Now,
I also have something to talk with you about that is not going as well… After you
deliver the negative feedback, say something like, “I know there is a tendency to dwell on
negative feedback. I want to remind you of the positive things we talked about
handle negative feedback. They won’t quit if you’re honest about their performance.
They will likely become defensive and get upset for a time. That’s ok! Your job
when giving feedback is to be clear, timely and specific. Worry about your
delivery. Ensure you have the relationship to deliver the feedback. Don’t worry
so much about the response.
How many times have you been sitting at your desk wondering, “Why won’t he ___________ ?’ Perplexed, you talk with your buddy at work. The conversation goes something like, “I’ve got this person, and I can’t figure out why he won’t ______________.” Or perhaps you talked directly to the person, but after several conversations, he still hasn’t done what you asked him to do.
There are four reasons for a lack of employee performance and why people don’t do what you want them to do:
They don’t know how.
They don’t think they know how.
They don’t want to.
Reason number one for a lack of employee performance, they don’t know-how, is the easiest to solve. People who don’t know how to do something need training, coaching, a mentor, a job aid or some other form of instruction. The hope is that with the right training and exposure, he will be able to do what you’re asking.
Reason number two for a lack of employee performance, they don’t think they know how, can be improved over time with patience and consistent coaching. You aren’t working with clean slates. Most people are recovering from or reacting to a past relationship or situation. If a person worked for a controlling manager who never let him make a decision or worked for someone who invoked punitive consequences for making mistakes, the person will be hesitant to make decisions. Hence why he does drive-bys on you, repeatedly checking in, but never pulling the trigger on anything.
If you work with someone who doesn’t think he knows what to do, but you know that he has the answer, encourage him to trust himself. When he comes to you for validation or approval, ask questions, don’t give answers. Tell the person you trust his judgment and encourage risk-taking. Tell him that you’ll support his decision, even if it proves to be the wrong one. And encourage him to make the decision next time without consulting you. And then keep your word. If he makes the wrong call, you have to have his back and can’t invoke negative consequences.
Reason number three for a lack of employee performance, they can’t, is challenging but clear-cut. People who can’t do a task their brains aren’t wired for will never do that responsibility well, regardless of how much coaching, training, and assistance you provide. If you have repeatedly AND EFFECTIVELY, coached, trained, and provided support, remove that responsibility and give the person something he can do well. If that responsibility is a large part of the job, you have someone in the wrong job. It’s time to make a change.
Reason number four for a lack of employee performance, they don’t want to, is annoying but manageable. There are lots of reasons people don’t do things they don’t want to do. Those reasons include, but aren’t limited to, boredom, lack of buy-in as to why something is important, insufficient time, feeling like a task is beneath them, etc. If you’ve got someone who can but doesn’t want to do something, you can either take the responsibility away, incent him to do it, or give feedback EVERY TIME the task doesn’t get done.
Giving negative feedback isn’t fun for the giver or the receiver. No one wants to hear that he isn’t meeting expectations and most people don’t want to tell him. But the discomfort of receiving negative feedback EVERY TIME the person doesn’t do what he needs to do will create behavior change. He will either begin doing what you ask, quit, or ask for a transfer. Either way, your problem is solved.
The first step in getting people to do what you want them to do is to discover why they’re not doing what you ask. It’s impossible to appropriately manage employee performance if you don’t know why someone isn’t doing what he needs to do. And the person to ask why a responsibility isn’t getting done isn’t you or your buddy, it’s the person not doing the work. So get out of your head, leave your office, and go talk to the person not doing the work.
Here’s how to start an employee performance conversation:
“I’ve noticed you’re not doing ___________. Help me understand what’s happening.” Watch your tone, inquire from a place of genuine curiosity, and identify the reason he isn’t doing what he needs to do. Then you can intervene appropriately and hopefully get what you want.
The people you work with want to do a good job. They want you to think well of them. Yes, even the people you think do little work. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people are doing the best they know how to do. And when you don’t get what you want, make requests.
Version one: “You did this thing and here’s why it’s a problem.”
The other way is less direct. Rather than telling the person what went wrong, simply make a request.
Version two: “Will you…” Or, “It would be helpful to get this report on Mondays instead of Wednesday. Are you able to do that?”
It’s very difficult to give feedback directly without the other person feeling judged. Making a request is much more neutral than giving direct feedback, doesn’t evoke as much defensiveness, and achieves the same result. You still get what you want.
When I teach giving feedback, I often give the example of asking a waitstaff in a restaurant for ketchup. Let’s say your waiter comes to your table to ask how your food is and your table doesn’t have any ketchup.
Option one: Give direct feedback. “Our table doesn’t have any ketchup.”
Option two: Make a request. “Can we get some ketchup?”
Both methods achieve the desired result. Option one overtly tells the waiter, “You’re not doing your job.” Option two still tells the waiter he isn’t doing his job, but the method is more subtle and thus is less likely to put him on the defensive.
You are always dealing with people’s egos. And when egos get bruised, defenses rise. When defenses rise, it’s hard to have a productive conversation. People stop listening and start defending themselves. Defending oneself is a normal and natural reaction to negative feedback. It’s a survival instinct.
You’re more likely to get what you want from others when they don’t feel attacked and don’t feel the need to defend themselves. Consider simply asking for what you want rather than telling people what they’re doing wrong, and see what happens.
I will admit, asking for what you want in a neutral and non-judgmental way when you’re frustrated is very hard to do. The antidote is to anticipate your needs and ask for what you want at the onset of anything new. And when things go awry, wait until you’re not upset to make a request. If you are critical, apologize and promise to do better next time. It’s all trial and error.
Being in the wrong job feels terrible. It’s not unlike being in the wrong romantic relationship, group of friends, or neighborhood. We feel misplaced. Everything is a struggle. Feeling like we don’t fit and can’t be successful is one of the worst feelings in the world.
The ideal situation is for an underperforming employee to decide to move on. But when this doesn’t happen, managers need to help employees make a change.
The first step in helping an underperforming employee move on to something where s/he can be more successful is to accept that giving negative feedback and managing employee performance is not unkind. When managers have an underperforming employee, they often think it isn’t nice to say something. Managers don’t want to hurt employees’ feelings or deal with their defensive reactions. In fact, when we help someone move on to a job that she will enjoy and where she can excel, we do the employee a favor. We set her free from a difficult situation that she was not able to leave out of her own volition.
I get asked the question “How do I know when it’s time to let an employee go?” a lot.
They can’t. Even with coaching and training, they don’t have the ability to do what you’re asking.
Numbers one and two are coachable. With the right training and coaching, employees will likely be able to do what you’re asking them to do.
Numbers three and four are less coachable and are likely not trainable.
When you’re confronted with someone who simply can’t do what you need them to do, it’s time to help the person make a change.
The way you discover whether or not someone can do something is to:
Set clear expectations
Train, coach, and give feedback
Train, coach and give feedback
Train, coach and give feedback
Welcome to management.
After you’ve trained, coached, and given feedback for a period of time, and the person still can’t do what you’re asking her to do, it’s time to make a change.
Making a change does not mean firing someone. You have options:
Take away responsibilities the person can’t do well and give him other things that he can do well.
Rotate the person to a different job.
Firing someone is always a last resort.
Sometimes we get too attached to job descriptions. The job description outlines a specific responsibility that the person can’t do. So we fire the person versus considering, who else in the organization can do that task? Be open-minded. If you have a person who is engaged, committed, and able to do most of her job, be flexible and creative. Give away parts of the job to someone who can do them well. I’ve also seen employees who were failing thrive in a different job. Organizations that are flexible survive; organizations that are rigid do not.
Let’s say you’ve stripped away the parts of the job that an underperforming employee can do well, and she still can’t perform effectively. Now it’s time to make a change.
Here are some words to use when having the difficult “it’s time to move on” conversation:
“I really want you on my team and to be successful in our organization. Over the past six months, we’ve had several conversations about the parts of your job that are a struggle. We’ve taken away responsibilities that aren’t a fit for you and have replaced those responsibilities with things that seemed like a better fit. And yet I can see that you are still struggling. I’m very sorry to say that it’s not appropriate for you to continue working here. Today is your last day.” Depending on your organizational culture, can also say, “How do you want to handle this? You can resign or we can let you go. I’ll do whatever feels more comfortable for you.”
This is a difficult conversation that no manager wants to have. Yet I promise you, this conversation feels better to your employee than suffering in a job in which s/he can’t be successful. After you’ve set expectations, observed performance, and coached and given feedback repeatedly, letting someone go is kinder than letting the employee flounder in a job in which he cannot be successful.
Need to give negative feedback? Practice out loud. The words you say in your head while driving to work will not be what comes out of your mouth when you give the actual feedback. Ask a friend, family member, or even your pet (aka someone you don’t work with) to listen to you deliver the feedback. If people outside of your industry and organization understand the feedback, the feedback recipient will be clear, too.
Giving feedback is stressful for both the person giving the feedback and the feedback recipient. The best way to manage the stress of giving feedback is to be prepared.
Here are three ways to prepare for difficult feedback conversations:
Write out the feedback, save your notes, and walk away. Read your notes later and ask yourself, “Have I been clear?” Then see if you can cut the notes in half. Shorter feedback is better.
Practice out loud. Use our 8- step Feedback Formula as a guide. The Formula will ensure you give clear, specific, and succinct feedback without emotion.
Bring type-written notes to your feedback conversations. When the feedback recipient becomes defensive (and they will) or you become flustered (and you might), your notes will help you keep the conversation on track.
During every feedback training I teach, I am asked how to reduce feedback recipient’s defensiveness. Defensiveness is a normal, healthy response to feedback. When you give someone negative feedback, you (subtly) tell the person they did something wrong. No one wants to hear that, so the brain goes on the defensive. It’s a normal survival mechanism. Instead of avoiding and dreading defensiveness during feedback conversations, prepare for it. And the best way to prepare is to practice what you want to say out loud. Speaking a message is not the same as practicing the conversation silently in your head. Speaking out loud is more stressful and takes more time. So, if a conversation is particularly difficult or awkward, practice out loud!
I’d like to give a huge shout out to Angela Fusaro of Physician 360 for sharing this video with us. Angela practiced my eight-step Feedback Formula on her dog, Thor. I thought it was so funny and thought you would, too.
It’s hard to watch people do things that damage them – personally or professionally. And yet, if they haven’t asked for feedback, people likely won’t listen to unsolicited advice, so don’t bother giving it.
If you really want to give unsolicited advice, ask for permission and make sure you get a true “yes” before speaking up.
The conversation could go something like this:
“I noticed we’re getting behind on the XYZ project. I have a couple of ideas about what we can do. Would you be interested in talking about them?” Or, “That Monday meeting is rough. I feel for you. I used to run meetings like that. Would you be interested in talking about some meeting management strategies? I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.”
After you offer to talk (aka, give your opinion), listen and watch the response you get. Do the person’s words and body language portray a true “yes, I’d like your opinion” or what seems like an “I know I’m supposed to say yes, but I’m really not interested” reply? If you get the latter, you’re likely just giving unwanted advice that won’t be heard. If that’s the case, let it go. But if the person appears generally interested and open, proceed.
You could also say something like:
“Last week we were talking about your frustrations about not being promoted. I have a couple of ideas about that. Do you want to talk about them? Either way is fine, but I thought I’d offer.”
Or, “That was a tough conversation during today’s staff meeting. It’s hard to present ideas and not have them be embraced. I have a couple of thoughts about ways you can approach the conversation during the next meeting. Do you want to talk about them?”
If you extend the invitation to talk, the other person has to be able to say no. An invitation is only an invitation if “no” is an acceptable answer. You can’t ask if the person wants your input and then keep talking if he verbally or physically said no.
Be brave. If you care about someone personally or professionally and you see him doing something that gets in the way of his success, ask permission to say something. If you get the go ahead, proceed. If you get a “no thank you,” accept that and move on. You’ve done your part.
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 feedback every time you meet.
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.
Meet over the phone while commuting or waiting for flights.
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.
Vague communication is unhelpful. Being vague instills doubt in the people around you and reduces your credibility.
When a customer service agent answers my questions with words like, “That sounds right, I think so, or that should work,” I hang up and call back, hoping to get someone who can give me an affirmative answer. People do this to you, too…they just don’t tell you about it.
Watch your language. If the answer is yes, say “Yes.” If the answer is no, say “No.” “I think so,” says neither yes nor no. Saying, “I think so” tells people you don’t really know.
A few phrases to avoid and what to say instead:
Avoid: “That should be done by Friday.”
Instead, be specific and give a final date. “That will be complete by Friday. If I can’t get it done by Friday, I’ll call you to let you know by 5:00 pm on Thursday.”
Avoid: “Sounds right.”
Instead, be specific and say, “That’s correct.”
Avoid: “We should be able to do that.”
Instead, be specific and say, “We can do that.”
Avoid: “I guess.”
Instead, be specific and say, “Yes” or “No.”
When I teach feedback training, the biggest thing training participants struggle with is specificity. “You’re difficult to work with.” “Your clothing is inappropriate.” “I just find you to be negative.” “You did a good job on that.” “It’s a pleasure to have you on the team.” All of this is vague and thus unhelpful to the feedback recipient. And the same is true when answering questions and making promises.
Tell people exactly what to expect. Be specific. Even if they don’t like your answer, they’ll be happy to have a clear answer.
When the people we work with don’t do their jobs, we might find ourselves saying, “He should be more on top of things.” “She shouldn’t make commitments she can’t keep.” “He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that’s not my problem.” The challenge is, when your coworkers don’t perform, it is your problem.
When your coworkers don’t get you the information you need in a timely way, you miss deadlines. When you work from incorrect information, your reports are wrong. When others don’t work with you, you look bad. So you can be right all day about how others perform, and your reputation will still be negatively impacted.
I don’t suggest you enable your coworkers by doing the work others don’t. I do suggest you help your coworkers be successful by holding them accountable.
Here are a few things you can do to manage your career and get what you need from your business relationships:
Don’t assume others will meet deadlines. Check in periodically and ask, “What’s been done so far with the XYZ project?” Notice, I didn’t suggest asking, “How are things going with the XYZ project.” “How are things going” is a greeting, not a question.
Set iterative deadlines. If May 20th is your drop-dead deadline, ask to see pieces of work incrementally. “Can I see the results of the survey on May 5th, the write-up on May 10th, and the draft report on May 15th?” One of the biggest mistakes managers and project managers make is not practicing good delegation by setting iterative deadlines and reviewing work as it’s completed.
Don’t just email and ask for updates. The people you work with are overwhelmed with email, and email is too passive. Visit people’s offices or pick up the phone.
You might be thinking, “Holding my coworkers accountable is awkward. I don’t have the formal authority, and I don’t want my coworkers to think I’m bossy or damage my business relationships.”
It’s all in the how you make requests.
If you’ve seen me speak or have read the business book How to Say Anything to Anyone, you know I believe in setting clear expectations at the beginning of anything new. That could sound something like, “I’m looking forward to working with you on the XYZ project. How would you feel if we set iterative deadlines, so we can discuss work as it is completed? You’ll get just-in-time input, making any necessary adjustments as we go, and we’ll stay ahead of schedule. How does that sound? How are the 5th, 10th, and 15th as mini deadlines for you?”
Many people put large projects off until the last minute. People procrastinate less when large projects are broken into smaller chunks with correlating deadlines. You strengthen your business relationships and support people in meeting deadlines and not procrastinating when you agree on completion dates when projects begin. Also, most of us unfortunately know what it’s like to put a lot of work into a project, have someone review our completed work, and then be told we went down the wrong path and need to start over.
Ask more. Assume less. Don’t assume your coworkers will do what they’re supposed to do. Ask upfront to see pieces of work on agreed-upon dates. Pick up the phone versus rely on email to communicate, and know that the people you work closely with are a reflection of you. Get people working with you, and everyone will look good.