It’s not me, IT’S YOU

August 7, 2014

I can recall my first employee appraisal vividly.  I sat nervously in a vacant Washington DC restaurant.  Service started in an hour, but I’d been called in early for a routine ‘sit-down’ appraisal with my supervisor.  Conscious that my job, rent, and work visa depended on me remaining in gainful employment, I was terrified that a recent incident with a gravy boat and a customer’s crisp white linen suit might have spelled the end of my American dream.

It turned out I needn’t have worried.  Scored out of ten on a host of scales, I was delighted to know that the white suit incident was a distant memory and I was safe to continue tending tables.  I remember the scores so clearly:

Customer Service: 10

Attitude: 10

Communication: 10

Punctuality: 10

Personal Hygiene: 9

Teamwork: 10

Leadership: 10

Brilliant! Wait, what? Personal hygiene – a nine? What does that mean?  Frankly I’ve got no idea since, as an insecure teenager, I would have scored one or less on assertiveness had it featured on the lofty scale, so I didn’t ask.  But here I am over a decade later and for some reason that missing point still sticks with me.


Good news

Delivering constructive criticism is a difficult and intensely personal task.  An individual or team that is not performing on target, or indeed is violating an important code of conduct, will need to be engaged with if the situation is to improve.  So, dreaded is the task, in fact, that I suspect that in most cases the messenger feels as much anxiety – if not more – as the recipient.

In trying to ‘sandwich’ the constructive criticism amongst the positives my Washington DC manager fell into the same trap almost all leaders do.  A growing body of research, though, shows that the recipients smell a rat instantly. There has never been a good day – or good way – to bury bad news, but following these guidelines will ensure the process is as painless and purposeful as possible.


Hold the Sandwich

Despite what you might have heard, don’t bookend the bad news with compliments.  While it may make you feel better about having a tough conversation, evidence shows it comes across as disingenuous, evasive, and ultimately detracts from the impact of your overall message. Ultimately you need your message to be heard, so instead start the discussion with any genuine positives before plainly and confidently outlining the areas that require immediate attention.  Be direct, transparent, and solution driven; you’ll see results much faster than if the news were buried.


Early and Often

Feedback is an inevitable part of the workplace dynamic, but when it comes in an unstructured manner or at an unexpected time it’s sure to put the recipient on the defensive.  Instead, schedule regular structured sessions where the senior and line manager have space to feedback to team members on their achievements, and professional development opportunities.  If, for instance, employees know that each of these sessions will feature exactly three areas for their own personal development, they’re likely to be much less upset to be sent on a workshop to boost their leadership competencies.


Be Specific

While saying “I’d like to see you work on your communication skills” might get you off the hook as far as difficult conversations go, it gives the individual no sense of how they – or you for that matter – can manage or measure their improvement.  Whether their style is too authoritative, or worse still they’re a pushover, they need to know exactly what areas of their performance need a boost or the cycle of awkward conversations will continue ad infinitum, so be prepared to outline some specific objectives, some options for up-skilling, and a reasonable timeline that they can aim towards.


Face Facts

Constructive comments should always be driven by evidence.  Whether their sales performance is dramatically below average, or their customer feedback scores are consistently showing cause for concern, remember to focus on the data, and not necessarily the person.  When you do so, you position the low numbers as a challenge that both parties need to work together to solve.  No need to sugarcoat the fact that you’re disappointed by the ratings, we’ve learned already how that can badly affect our credibility as leaders.  By focusing on the measurable outcomes, the feedback becomes less personal so both parties can come together to attack the problem, instead of each other.


Give them a clue

When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.  It’s an old adage, but it has particular resonance when delivering important feedback to under-performing individuals.  If you know some end of year figures will be a punch in the gut for someone in your firm, or if you’re choosing to move a key account to a different salesperson, it pays dividends to clue them in ahead of any bad news.  By suggesting ahead of time that you want to freshen up the way accounts are being lead, perhaps to reinvigorate client relationships, you’re preparing them for a shakeup that might otherwise catch them unawares.  In doing so, you begin to manage their expectations and give them time to equip themselves emotionally for any big changes that might be on the way.


Money Talks

Wherever possible, try to separate any salary, bonus, or reward discussions from the complicated area of constructive criticism.  Linking these areas, when it’s not necessary to do so, can add a considerable amount of heat to the discussion and make it very difficult to have a reasoned engagement where both parties can leave feeling positive.  So, try to steer clear anything that might be interpreted as a threat or compromise to their livelihood.  Unless of course the situation has descended to that point, at which clarity and transparency about the seriousness of the situation is essential.


Back in The Office

As daunting as it can be for both parties, delivering challenging feedback is an essential leadership competency.  Old habits die hard, though, so I’d encourage you to take some time to talk to your colleagues and fellow leaders about how they deliver bad news; sadly, you’ll find that the effectiveness of the feedback sandwich is one of the most enduring management myths. Sticking to that tired model is not only transparent, it risks undermining both your message and your relationships with those around you in your organisation.


Finally, and perhaps most important of all the lessons covered here, please remember to let men in linen suits pour their own darn gravy.

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