Don’t Mess Up This Management Moment

I watched in horror as the supervisor attempted to explain how it wasn’t “that bad.” “You really are doing a good job, and this piece of paper isn’t everything.”

The guy to whom he was speaking wasn’t buying it. 

The supervisor was holding a feedback session with this technician as part of his annual performance review. I was—fortunately, for me—only a bystander as a minor player in the administrative process within the department at the time. 

This was while I was on active duty in the U.S. Navy, and the supervisor was giving providing some less-than-glowing feedback to a 2nd class petty officer in his division, who happened to be one of our better gas turbine systems technicians. Despite his performance, he was being rated lower than he expected on the form that would become part of his permanent record. 

As you can imagine, this was not a good surprise for the petty officer. He was confused, hurt, and angry. And for a few months after this meeting, his performance suffered as his motivation went down the toilet. 

Could you blame him? 

It was that moment in 2005 that I realized the precarious nature of leadership and management within the context of the performance review meeting. 

And since then, I’ve come to realize that leading people often comes down to how we handle specific interactions and even momentary exchanges with each other. I’ve also come to realize that managers can do a great deal of good by keeping in mind three key management moments. These three don’t encompass everything that’s important, but if you knock these three out of the park, you’ll be well-poised for success. 

  • First, take care of people when they first join your organization or team. (Read more.)
  • Second, make your meetings matter. (Read more.)
  • Third, coach your people with high-quality feedback and never surprise them with bad news during an official performance review meeting. 

When it comes to giving feedback, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s hard. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula or silver bullet for this one. No app, no form will (or should) relieve you as a supervisor of your duty to deliver consistent performance feedback. 

And the “feedback sandwich?” This is where a supervisor delivers negative feedback in between two pieces of positive feedback. Some supervisors love it. I say it’s a copout designed to make the situation more comfortable for the supervisor, not more helpful for the employee. 

Delivering feedback is both art and science, and based on what I’ve experienced and some best practices, here are some tips to follow so you don’t mess up feedback opportunities:

  • Always focus on behavior. Tell people what you noticed, what you observed. For example, don’t tell some that he is lazy or has a bad attitude. Tell him instead what you have seen, such as that he consistently waits until the last minute to take action. You can also think of situations in terms of ABCs: Antecedents (the context or the causes), Behaviors (what you noticed), and the Consequences (the outcomes or results of the behaviors). 
  • Make it a two-way conversation. Actively listen to what he or she says, and paraphrase it back to him or her to check your understanding. I use a phrase like this, “So what I hear you saying is …” followed by my summary. If I’m wrong, I can go back and forth with the person to gain a shared perspective. You can also ask the other person to paraphrase what he or she thought you said. Simply ask, “It’s important that we understand each other. Could you do me a favor and summarize what you think I’m trying to tell you?”
  • Be timely. If someone does something great or something not-so-great, have a conversation right away. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or for the person’s annual review. 
  • Don’t gloss over topics and don’t end your conversation earlier than you should. Even if it’s awkward and difficult, stay in the conversation. Remind the other person that you’re doing this because it’s important for him or her professionally and because it’s important for the team. 
  • For scheduled feedback sessions, plan ahead. If your organization has a formal performance review process, be sure to think through both the administration of the review and the content of the meeting with the employee. 
  • Remember that the venue matters. Meeting with an employee in your office might make you feel comfortable and powerful, but it’s not going to help the employee be in a receptive state of mind. Try somewhere neutral, such as a conference room. For more informal coaching and feedback, outdoors or lunch could work. 

Certainly, this isn’t meant as a comprehensive list of feedback or performance review dos and don’ts. Instead, I simply think it’s important to highlight the fact that feedback and performance review meetings are one of a few key opportunities for leading your people. They’re one of those times—in addition to orienting newcomers and leading meetings—when you’re acting in your role as a supervisor, when you have the power to shape the situation. 

So I encourage you to make the most of these moments. And to lead boldly.

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.