On feedback: when bad management strikes
April 15, 2015
A. I don’t like giving feedback, it feels confrontational.
B. I shouldn’t have to give you feedback or tell you what I’m thinking. You’re my right hand, you should already know.
C. Why are you doing [what you thought was your job], you’re not responsible for that! You need to be doing [some other thing you were never informed of]!
These are just a few of the gems delivered by Past Terrible Managers in my Past Work Life.
Bad managers drive me more than a little bit ’round the bend. Not all managers became managers because they were actually good at managing people, they were usually promoted for doing their own job well. When that happens, either they learn how to do it well, or you get a dingleberry of a supervisor and that’s just bad times.
As a manager, past and present, giving feedback to staff, or really anybody, without either feeling or being confrontational is such a necessary skill. If you need someone to change, they need to KNOW that you need them to change! Relying on strategy C above is such nonsense.
I understand that delivering criticism feels fraught, it’s not always comfortable, and empathetic people who have had bad experiences on the receiving end of feedback don’t want to perpetuate that cycle. That does not relieve you of a key aspect of your duty as a manager.
When a manager tells me they just don’t want to give feedback, I often ask if they enjoy being irritated, resented and subpar. Because that’s the situation they’re setting up: their employee will continue to do things wrong, this will reflect badly on the employee and reflect badly on you. Also, it’s likely that the tolerance of poor performance by that employee will have a sinking effect on morale for the rest of the team.
And conversely, what would it be like to be the hapless employee who doesn’t know they’re doing things wrong or inefficiently, and catching flak for something they don’t even realize is a problem? Don’t be that jerk boss who sows confusion, induces anxiety, and breeds resentment!
As I said, this is a learned skill. I didn’t come by it naturally, especially since I’m both introverted and at least a little anti-social.
So, how do I give constructive feedback?
1. I treat feedback sessions as conversations.
This isn’t intended as a confrontation but girding yourself for a battle almost certainly turns it into one. Be prepared, just don’t assume it has to be that difficult.
First time offenses? I ask them to explain to me how and why they’re doing X so that I understand where they’re coming from. It’s possible that they’ll identify a weakness in the existing protocol, or the training documentation. In other words, this could be a learning opportunity for me too.
After I solicit some perspective from them, if it doesn’t change my mind, then I explain what we need them to do and why.
Repeat offenses, if the thing is non-negotiable? I remind them of previous conversations, and ask what, if anything, is preventing them from performing their duties as asked. This is not permission to stand their ground, this is checking whether I need to be doing another aspect of my job: removing barriers to their performance. Reiterate that I need them to do it this way, and follow up as needed.
2. Understand that your goal is improvement, not chastisement.
Even if they’re on a PIP, the end goal is improvement of the work situation, whether that’s ultimately a firing or a mediocre employee understanding what’s really needed from them and turning a corner.
When frustrated by an undesirable outcome, I’ve seen managers rage and rant at their staff. What’s the point? That intimidates some, irritates others, but rarely ever produces results. Besides, it’s rude and disrespectful. Respect goes both ways and is more easily lost than earned.
3. Take the emotion out of it.
This is about the job, remain professional. It’s not your feelings or their feelings or likes or dislikes or any of that other stuff. It’s not personal. That doesn’t mean be a robot! It just means don’t derail the conversation. Focus on the thing you want improved and find a way to fix it. If someone is causing a problem, then figure out a way to fix that but don’t make it personal.
No one benefits from going several rounds in the blame game.
There’s no magic bullet, and I’m not the perfect manager, but I try to address my weaknesses. The least we can do is help people do the same. After all, it’s your job.