Effective Management Consulting

The Performance Meeting: Part II – Constructive Feedback

By Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CEAP

In my previous column, I suggested two techniques for disarming a defensive employee during a performance meeting. In the conclusion of this two-part article, I will recommend techniques that EA professionals could share with a manager who wants to give constructive feedback to an underperforming employee.

The Problem of Ineffective Feedback
According to a survey on manager-led development effectiveness conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC), ineffective feedback discussions result in:

* 40% of employees not being motivated to avoid repeating mistakes;
* 18% of employees getting angry during feedback conversations; and
* 44% of employees being unclear on how to address their weaknesses.

According to CLC, “managers fail to conduct constructive feedback discussions, because they avoid conflicts instead of managing them.”

Roxanne Lulofs describes the conflict avoidance cycle in her book, Conflict: From Theory to Action. If the manager thinks of conflict as bad, he or she will get nervous about a conflict, and avoid it as long as possible. But delay only leads to the conflict escalating, requiring the manager to confront the problem, and often poorly.
When managers lack practice, skill, or mentoring in how to provide constructive feedback, conflicts will result in a less than satisfying discussion for manager and employee alike. This makes such talks unpleasant and leads to the desire to avoid them altogether. 
The opportunity for the EA consultant is to model and mentor constructive feedback for managers who lament that performance meetings are undesirable or ineffective.
The CLC has suggested a good model for providing constructive feedback. Consider prompting managers to provide these three elements for a highly effective discussion.

1. Conduct an Open Discussion

While the manager must discuss performance weaknesses with their employee, it helps to start by fostering an open and positive discussion. Have the manager share his/her intention to contribute to the employee’s success. This sets a non-confrontational tone for the meeting, making the employee feel comfortable. 
The manager should invite the employee to give his/her perspective as well. I have observed many managers squirm at the suggestion of seeking the employee’s perspective, usually due to conforming to a stubborn culture of punitive feedback. I simply remind the manager that he/she loses no authority or influence by providing an open discussion. In fact, the manager will likely find the employee more receptive to feedback.

2. Conduct an Evidence-Based Discussion

It helps to keep the focus on facts by describing observed patterns in performance. Continue by including clear examples of the employee’s strengths, and explain how those strengths positively impact performance. The manager can balance the discussion by describing the consequences of the employee’s weaknesses.
The effectiveness of this feedback is the juxtaposition of ideal performance being tied to strengths, and consequences tied to weaknesses.
3. Conduct a Forward-Looking Discussion

Managers can get trapped by dwelling on the past, which cannot be rewritten. Rather, encourage the manager to focus on future behaviors so the employee has the opportunity to develop and succeed.  Managers can start by pointing out how the employee’s strengths can be used to improve observed weaknesses. The manager should be clear about the steps necessary to avoid the consequences of future mistakes, and provide tangible steps to address the weaknesses.
The effective discussion should end with the manager encouraging the employee to avoid future mistakes.

The 90-Day Dry Run

Much of my consulting effectiveness comes from my real-world experience as a manager for 13 years. Early on, I discovered that several of my team members were caught off-guard by my feedback during their annual performance evaluation. 
Vowing never to surprise an employee again, I began promoting a “90-day dry run” in which I engaged employees in a practice evaluation three months before the scheduled official evaluation meeting. (I used the same criteria and forms.) When there were gaps between the employee’s performance and the manager’s expectations, we discussed possible actions or corrections that would give me something tangible and positive to document over a three-month period.
When I share this technique with managers, I remind them of their part of the contract, which is to increase observation so that the employee’s gains can be documented.

Announcing an Intensive Seminar on Management Consulting

Would you like to take your consulting skills to the next level? I will be presenting a 7-hour pre-conference training at EAPA’s 2017 World EAP Conference in Los Angeles. Titled “Masterful Consultation: Deepen Your Consulting Toolkit & Expand Your EAP’s Value,” this seminar is designed specifically for EA consultants with intermediate experience in an EAP, as well as candidates for the CEAP and EAS-C certificates.
My partner in this presentation will be Markus Dietrich, LMHC, CEAP, the Global Manager of EAP & Work-Life for DuPont. I hope that you’ll join us. Mention the event to an interested co-worker.

The author invites readers to network about all types of effective management consulting topics by connecting with him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/jeffharrisceap) and Twitter (@jeffharrisceap). 

Jeffrey Harris, MFT, PCC, CEAP, has provided management consulting to a wide variety of organizations throughout his 23-year career in employee assistance, including corporate, educational, government, and union organizations. The author also has extensive experience as a manager and executive coach, from which he draws insight for his consulting. Jeff currently serves as Program Manager of EAP & WorkLife at the University of Southern California.