Denver Bar Association
March 2007
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Give Feedback to Inspire Passion and Performance

by Jim Dawson

As a manager or coach, it is your job to help people reach higher levels of performance. It is your job to reach inside yourself to find the interest, words and passion that encourages others to tap into their potential. It is your responsibility to give the kind of support, guidance and feedback that changes lives.

To do this well, you must have genuine respect for the individuals you influence and a sincere desire to contribute to their growth. Your intent determines whether what you say or do is discouraging or affirming.

Successful feedback validates what others have done well and guides them in the direction they need to go. It’s not a once-a-year conversation, it’s an ongoing dialogue that motivates behavior and inspires excellence.

So, why do most managers wait until the end of the year to give feedback to their employees? What is it about our business culture that inhibits immediate conversations about what’s going on and what can be done better?

Part of the problem is that today’s jobs are increasingly knowledge-based, technology-oriented and isolating. We aren’t used to having straightforward conversations about disagreements and performance challenges. As a result, managers need, more than ever, to have the ability to influence others and create cohesive teams. To be successful managers, we need to give and receive feedback at the time it is warranted.

Giving and receiving feedback includes:

Engaging Conversations

Engaging conversations help others understand what is expected of them. If an employee is often late getting to work, in your conversation, help the employee understand why his or her behavior has to change. Then ask the employee to make a commitment to be at work on time. Be clear about what will happen if the agreement is violated and be prepared to enforce the consequences.

If someone on your team has made a mistake, ask: "At the time this happened, what were you thinking?" Take time to show you are interested in what this person is saying. Also ask: "What do you think you can do differently next time?" or "What ideas do you have for how you can avoid doing that in the
future?" Let the employee come up with the answers. The point is to examine the facts — not to make the other person wrong.

Proactive Approach

To be proactive, you have to observe what people are doing and be seen making these observations. This gives you the opportunity to eliminate mistakes as or before they happen. Don’t be afraid to analyze mistakes openly with your direct reports, peers or even your own supervisor.

It can be hard to develop this skill, as few organizations foster a non-judgmental atmosphere and people are scared they will be punished if they are honest about what they’ve done. As a manager, you have to earn the right to be trusted based on how you handle errors and mistakes. Modeling trustworthy behavior takes time. You must be serious about this commitment, and you must never punish someone for an original mistake. This creates fear and an inhibition toward trying new things. Wherever possible, encourage people to apply their creativity. If you can, let them test their ideas in a safe environment that won’t directly affect the business.

Learning to give successful, immediate feedback is a process. In time, people will welcome your feedback because they trust your intent and your desire to help them improve.

Communicating Expectations

When employees fail, it’s usually because they don’t understand what is expected of them. Clear expectations should be set when employees first come to work and they should be held to them until it’s time to "up the ante." Managerial employees are expected to have certain skills in place, and expectations can be increased over time. At all levels, expectations should be identified and agreed to by both parties involved.

Suspending Judgment

When there is a problem, be a detective. An assertion is not proof or evidence and you may not have the story right. Before you make a decision, ask questions to help you understand the contributing factors of a situation and be open to other points of view. Accept that people can do the wrong things for all the right reasons. Sometimes, mistakes happen because someone is trying to improve the process — and it just didn’t work out.

Handling Conflict

Conflict is inevitable. If handled appropriately, conflict can lead to greater understanding and new ideas. Ask questions and listen for the cause of the disagreement. Let those involved speak their minds, and never invalidate their opinions or emotions. When the problem is defined, you can lead the conversation toward a resolution.

Most important, feedback should be:

Specific: Base your conversation on the behavior you are addressing, what took place, and what is expected. It should never be about liking or disliking the person, or finding fault or blame. It should be about identifying the problem and having corrective action identified and understood.

Descriptive: Use clear, descriptive language and, if possible, demonstrate what you are looking for, and have them do it for understanding.

Stating the ideal: Paint a picture about what the future could look like if the person realizes a higher potential.

Immediate and confirmed: Give your feedback as soon as possible, and check for understanding by asking the person to summarize the points that were made.

A two-way conversation: One of the best ways to gain trust and develop your own effectiveness is to ask for feedback and accept it graciously. If the feedback is sincere, find the truth within it and change your behavior
accordingly.

If you are not used to giving immediate feedback, it may seem awkward at first. The key is to be respectful of the other person and use direct but affirmative language. Here are a few tips to smooth the way:

  • Use "I" messages. Own what you say and only use another person’s name and comments when you have their permission.
  • Use "and" instead of "but." Defenses go up when you say "You are doing a good job, but ..." Use "and" to transition to comments on what the employee can do better.
  • Talk about "what went well" and what you "want done differently," instead of using judgmental terms such as "what went right" or "what went wrong."
  • Be aware of the non-verbal messages you are sending including eye contact, gestures and tone of voice.
  • Avoid using absolute terms such as "always," "never," "all the time." They are rarely true and can make people defensive.

If you keep an open dialogue with those you supervise, there should be few surprises. As you are learning to give immediate feedback, keep the end in mind. What you say and do has the power to change lives. As a person in authority, it’s your job and responsibility to lead others with your example, conviction, and feedback. In time, people will welcome your interaction and you will make valuable contributions to their success.


James Dawson is a managing partner of ADI Performance, a full-service training enterprise that specializes in developing and delivering programs that result in improved business practices and organizational cost efficiencies. You can reach him at (770) 640-0840 or e-mail jrdawson@adiperformance.com.

 


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