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On the list of ‘understated tasks’ performed by managers, giving individual feedback on performance falls somewhere between singing in the departmental choir and reheating yesterday’s coffee for an important planning meeting. It is the one area in which academicians, practitioners, public appointees, elected officials, government bureaucrats, and night managers at the corner convenience store all agree is important to the growth and development of their reporting staff. However, when given the choice between giving feedback and sticking themselves with pencils, local supply outlets report a steady growth in the sale of pencils while boxes of performance feedback forms continue to take up more space in the adjoining warehouse. The reluctance to commit to a process of sharpening the skill level of employees through the use of feedback only takes away from an organization’s capacity to raise its competitive ability in a race that is perceptually measured by choice-minded consumers. Feedback is acknowledged as a critical element of an employee’s organizational life and in lieu of many of the formal, procedural and legal changes that have greatly influenced the process within the last two decades, the process, ultimately, boils down to a verbal, one-on-one summation of observations made on performance that is either aligned or misaligned with the goals of the organization.

Most reasonable employees understand ‘Why’ giving and receiving feedback is necessary to their individual success. There is nothing so undermining of an organization’s character than to have employees engaged in completing goal-driven tasks while being absolutely clueless as to whether or not their performance is making a positive difference within the organization and advancing their individual efforts to move forward in their career. There is also very little disagreement on ‘What’ has to be done as part of the formal developmental steps taken by an organization as a way of distinguishing individual performance. The ‘How’ part of the feedback equation is where the surge of purchasing requests for boxes of pencils sends departmental budgets into disarray. Without exception, every formal performance management process has to include a ‘verbal feedback’ component and yet it is the one area that falls woefully short of proper training. Since giving feedback is generally viewed as the last thing you do on Friday before running out the door and the last thing you want to hear, the tendency is to speak ambiguously and listen haphazardly. Messages and meanings are misrepresented, misinterpreted and rarely understood until days later. For example, a common statement used by managers to explain why someone was denied a promotional opportunity is “Well, you’re not quite there, yet.” Now, days later, it occurs to the employee that they should have responded with “Not quite where, yet?” but, in that moment, most employees say, “Okay, thanks for the feedback.” The employee runs back to their cubicle, the manager breathes a sigh of relief and nothing further is known. While the ‘Not quite there, yet’ statement may be descriptive, it fails to meet two other qualitative aspects of feedback. It is not accurate and is not specific, thus rendering the statement, essentially, useless.

Vague generalities are a source of frustration for anyone trying to get a handle on their performance. It is incumbent on the person authorized to provide feedback to learn how to word things in such a way that the recipient is clear about what they need to do and how it needs to be done. Telling someone to ‘get better’ is no more helpful than a fox saying to a hen to ‘get tastier’. Anchor the feedback in specific behavioral statements (i.e. by our next quarterly performance session, I’d like you to work on keeping your meetings to a hour.) and it helps the recipient to measure their performance against specific criteria.
A willingness to talk and listen to specifics of feedback signals the end of budget overruns on boxes of pencils.

© 2013 Lee E. Meadows
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