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The Federal Coach

Be the bad guy: Negative feedback and how to deliver it

For many people, top fears include spiders, heights, public speaking and crowds. For many government managers I speak to, it's delivering criticism at performance time.

It's no wonder that delivering feedback -- particularly feedback on improving -- produces so much anxiety. Even under the best of circumstances, delivering feedback and coaching is difficult. But when an employee is not performing to expectations, emotions often run high. The performance conversation is the scenario that makes even experienced managers sweat. No one wants to be the bad guy.

While the performance-management systems your agencies use can provide a starting point for structuring feedback, I often hear they aren't enough to prepare you for the complete conversation. I tell managers that their key goal is not to provide a litany on all the ways their employees failed but rather the goal is to provide them with a list of ways to improve.

Here are some ideas for delivering effective, constructive feedback on how to improve:

1. Prepare for the best and the worst. As a general rule, supervisors should spend at least twice the amount of time preparing to deliver feedback as they actually spend delivering the feedback. To gain a well-rounded understanding of an employee's performance and uncover the root causes of performance issues, take the time to review previous appraisals and to collect feedback from people who work with the employee, as appropriate. Write down the points you want to make so you can be as clear as possible, and select your words carefully.

2. Ask for their assessment. When it comes time to deliver feedback, listen first and talk later. Start by asking your employee some key questions before going into your list of performance themes such as: How have you been doing? What do you consider your greatest achievements this year? What do you wish you had done better? Which aspects of the job are you still learning? Consider asking for a written assessment in advance of the meeting.

3. Diagnose key performance themes.
When preparing and delivering feedback, you should consider the strengths and weaknesses of an employee and communicate both. When you're identifying issues, be certain to find descriptive, results-oriented examples to highlight a broader theme. Begin with positives, move to areas for improvement and close on a positive point. The goal, after all, is to motivate your poor performer to improve.

4. Always consider the human element. Have a box of tissues on hand and understand that emotions might overtake the moment, and that's okay. Offer the tissues if needed, be empathetic, but keep providing your feedback.

5. Work together to define next steps. To help your team process the feedback and focus on improving, be prepared to have an open dialogue about the best ways you can work together to help them. Whatever the conversation, you should be ready to outline a set of specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound (SMART) goals for getting better.

Recognizing just how difficult performance feedback and coaching can be, I'm sure you have ideas to add to this starting point. How would you advise others to deliver critical feedback? Please leave a comment or send me your ideas to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday, when I interview U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas.

By Tom Fox

 |  July 19, 2010; 6:48 AM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Very good advice for anyone in a position to correct personnel issues. I do agree that questions should be the original lead-in but if it has gone too far then the questions have been answered and found unsatisfactory.

Posted by: zsr681 | July 19, 2010 12:54 PM

Although this post suggests asking some general questions like "How have you been doing?" the main focus is on how to deliver feedback. I think it is much better to draw as much as possible out of the employee with questions,thus making as few statements as possible. I advocate starting all meetings by asking employees to state what went well since the last meeting, then ask what has not gone so well and what the employee might do about the latter. Questions are less confrontational than statements and, if done regularly, make the whole performance appraisal meeting much easier. www.lead2xl.com

Posted by: mitchlead2xl | July 19, 2010 9:13 AM

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