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Why bother with feedback in a moment like this?

Stephanie Peskett
July, 2020

As a manager, you may be thinking, “how can I possibly give feedback in the middle of a pandemic?” and “Why now?” Most are probably thinking, giving feedback is a huge risk. But in the current environment, doing so is more important than ever.

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Why? Employees face a myriad of challenges daily – working virtually, maybe working less, operating different shifts. The way people work has changed significantly – and so have expectations. In the past, everyday conversations would provide an opportunity for managers to communicate new expectations and give feedback to direct reports, but in today’s virtual environment, those casual yet critical interactions have largely fallen by the wayside.

During this strange time, it is your job as a manager to keep your people engaged. Doing so requires you to clearly define what success looks like and how to get there. But for the average people leader, properly evaluating an individual’s performance, the ‘what’ and ‘how,’ is fraught with danger. The below scenarios highlight why:

Performance situation Leader self-talk Leader behavior Impact on employee behavior
A leader has not given their people ongoing, in-the-moment and frequent feedback on performance. I should have told them earlier… Provides feedback, but it comes off as vague and non-specific. Employees feel blindsided and potentially upset.
A leader has a ‘sense’ of some feedback, but because communication has been informal, they haven’t observed the individual enough to provide useful data or feedback. Who am I to say anything when I don’t have any real evidence? Leaders say and do nothing while waiting to gather more information. They may initiate a 360 to make giving feedback feel safer. Employees continue to work regardless, without being any wiser about what people feel or think about them.
Expectations and priorities have changed, but they haven’t been formally ‘updated’ in the employee annual goals/work plan. I dropped the ball and my people haven’t changed their goals since our last performance review. I’m not on solid ground to challenge them now. Leaders don’t provide feedback, which means their people aren’t held accountable. Leaders are frozen, unsure of how to adjust the goals given how much is still unknown. They avoid resetting the goals because it ‘feels after the fact’ and ‘looks silly.’ Employees are unclear on what good looks like. They drive themselves to meet the old goals (which may be unrealistic.) Ultimately this results in burnout. Employees will give up, because why bother trying to meet these clearly crazy goals?

So what is the antidote? There are three key steps you can to take to make an outsized impact on your people:

1. Be Prepared:

  • Take time to reflect and take some notes about each person before you have your performance conversation. Use your calendar as a prompt to remember the key moments/interactions so your feedback is more data driven.
  • If the feedback is serious and has consequence, make it very specific and direct. Write out a script if it helps you (and be willing to go off script, once well-rehearsed.)
  • If the feedback is more developmental and less serious, acknowledge specific situations and leverage them for development coaching conversations. Invite them to rise above the situation and consider it from a broader view. For example, “Do you recall when you led the team meeting last week? We didn’t get through the full agenda and ran over by 20 minutes. Let’s set that moment aside specifically and think, what went well? What could have been better? What is the learning here? If you were doing the same thing next week, what would you do now?” etc.

2. Be Safe – Bring structure to feedback conversations so that even in the virtual context there is safety while providing feedback. For example:

  • Give a frame for feedback that is positive and growth focused. In BTS we like to use “what’s working well” and “even better if…”
  • Set aside ten minutes at the end of a team meeting and ask people to share their views on what went well, and what would be “even better if…” Using the chat feature is one way to get your introverted team members to contribute to the conversation.
  • Set the expectation with your team that each one-on-one must include a moment for feedback, for both the leader and direct report.
  • When setting up the quarterly/monthly reviews, set an agenda in advance that includes an explicit call out for feedback – asking people to reach out in advance of the meeting to get input from their peers.

3. Be Real:

  • Go into every ‘tough’ feedback conversation with your head clear and your heart open. Going in with judgments, assumptions or heavy emotions could possibly make it a regretful conversation.
  • Admit your mistakes as a leader to yourself first – without blaming or judging yourself, COVID-19, the business, or the situation. Know that you’re learning how to lead in a crisis too. The next step in being real is being willing to admit these mistakes to others.
  • Adjust goals for the team as best you can, even if it’s later than you’d like. If you can’t change the goals for now, then share this with your team and decide when you will next review them.

In every organization, from top to bottom, everyone is still mastering feedback. A moment like this will expose gaps and make them look like chasms. Support your people with focused, consumable, digital and virtual development on giving (and receiving) feedback, so every leader out there can feel empowered and inspired, in every feedback conversation.

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