Most leaders and managers will tell you that how you say something is often more important than the underlying message itself. This is particularly true when it comes to providing feedback in the workplace. A humorous proverb illustrates my point particularly well. A Franciscan and a Jesuit were friends. They were both smokers who found it difficult to pray for a long period of time without having a cigarette. They decided to go to their superiors and ask for permission to smoke. When they met again, the Franciscan was downcast. “I asked my superior if I could smoke while I pray, and he said, “No!” The Jesuit wryly smiled and said, “I asked if I could pray while I smoke. He said, “Of course!”[i]
Yet, it is never as simple as this story suggests. It’s hard to give feedback in the proper way. Most of us dread the task, and we put it off until we are either forced to handle the matter or the problem keeps getting worse. Nonetheless, giving feedback doesn’t have to be a horrible experience as long as you have a plan. Permit me to suggest a few tips.
First, you need to know what type of feedback you are giving. Feedback in the workplace is often divided into two categories: reinforcing feedback and redirecting feedback. Reinforcing feedback is, for most people, easy to provide. It’s common to overhear individuals telling each other, “Good job” or “We want to acknowledge Susan’s strong efforts in helping us launch the new website.” And, for most leaders, they get the underlying message right – at least most of the time. The challenge with reinforcing feedback, however, is that we either use it too frequently so that it loses its effectiveness or not enough, and our employees feel undervalued. So, in the case of reinforcing feedback, the challenge lies in monitoring and adjusting your feedback’s frequency.
When faced with providing redirecting feedback, there are additional challenges that need to be considered. First, similar to when we provide reinforcing feedback, we need to give redirecting feedback often enough to help individuals improve, but not too much that we become overly controlling, and, therefore damage the relationship.
Next, we have to carefully consider the underlying message. We have found that employee feedback is most effective when it describes a specific behavior and then references a well-known standard against which the behavior is being measured. Here is an example to clarify this principle. Let’s say you lead a team that handles insurance claims for your company. One of your employees recently missed some key deadlines on two different projects. Rather than scolding the employee and telling them to do better, the preferred approach would be to say, “You missed these key deadlines the last few times. Our standard checklist tells us when we need to respond. I need you to use the checklist each time.”
There might be, however, an even better way to provide this type of feedback. It is in this context where we find another challenge when giving redirecting feedback – the way in which we provide redirecting feedback matters a lot.
The way we give feedback is dependent on two distinct considerations. First, you have to consider the current climate. Not all feedback scenarios are created equal. My colleague, Kristin Chapman, has taught me that feedback moments can be divided into two categories called Chronos and Kairos. Chronos comes from the Greek word for “time.” These are moments that just happen in the ordinary course of business or in the natural flow of an employee’s life cycle. Chronos moments typically carry less weight.
Kairos, on the other hand, which is translated as “the right moment,” is what we might call a “moment of truth.” Kairos moments happen unexpectedly, and at any time and in any place. They are not tied to a schedule or a customary workflow. A Kairos moment, for example, might be the first time you have to handle a mistake committed by your best employee. How you handle this challenge might ultimately be the difference between retaining this key employee or, alternatively, solidifying the relationship. So, it is imperative that when you are faced with giving difficult, redirecting feedback, you carefully consider whether you are dealing with a Chronos or Kairos moment.
Finally, let’s look at how phrasing the actual feedback might improve the overall result. Let’s assume a sales employee is failing to update your company’s sales tracker, which you use to forecast inventory needs. Your sales tracker is vital in preventing inventory surpluses, which can be expensive to handle. Instead of saying, “You need to complete the sales tracker right way!” There is a different approach.
Continuing with our example, John (your sales employee) is now 3 weeks late in entering his information into the sales tracker. The challenge you face is that John is also your best sales representative, and you know for a fact that he could have a job at 5 different companies in the valley.
Let me suggest an approach that might strengthen your relationship with John instead of creating tension.
Step # 1. Is this a Chronos or Kairos moment?
Because of John’s skills and his ability to go elsewhere, this might be a Kairos moment. Also, John might view administrative tasks as beneath his skillset. So, rather than stopping by his office and asking him to update the sales tracker. You schedule a 15 minute “check in” meeting. This will give you a chance to discuss things in private, and you will have the time to handle additional discussions, if needed. Also, by scheduling a meeting, you send a subtle message that what you will be talking about is important.
Step #2. Start with an observation.
“John, I have noticed you haven’t been completing the sales tracker.” Then, before John can jump in, quickly move to the third step.
Step #3. Explain the “why.”
“John, let me give you some background as to why we use the sales tracker and why it’s so important to us.” Then provide an explanation, and, if possible, look to share a story of when the company was negatively impacted because the sales tracker was not kept up-to-date. We know that stories are significantly more powerful than concepts presented theoretically.[ii]
Step #4. Invite the employee to help.
“So, John, I need your help. Would you be willing to make the sales tracker a priority and keep it up-to-date?”
Step #5. Be ready to respond.
John might come back with excuses, or he might exclaim that he “hates” this part of his job. That’s okay. Take the time to hear John’s concerns, and then brainstorm, if appropriate, ways to make the task easier. But, this part of the conversation should be much easier now because you managed to control your message’s tone and style during the first four steps.
This overall process can be broken down into the following sequence: state an observation, then a feeling (the “why” behind the policy), and then a need.[iii] The more leaders and managers learn to follow this simple pattern when giving redirecting employee feedback, the better they will become at inviting an employee to be part of the solution instead of alleging he or she is the problem.
[iii] https://magazine.byu.edu/article/a-mediator-mom/. This concept comes from Emily de Schweinitz Taylor; who, using her experience as a mediator, developed this concept to deal with children. Yet, I find it to be equally effective when dealing with employees. No! I am not suggesting employees are like children!