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Why employees are fed up with feedback

Oliver is having a very bad day. During his end-of-year review, his boss told him that his priorities are wrong, his approach is unfocused and his performance is mediocre.

Then she handed him a printout of a mandatory, multistep process he must follow, had him agree in writing to a weekly “accountability checklist” and sent him back to work.

The thing is, Oliver’s boss is right. Oliver focuses on the aspects of the job that he likes. He lets too much slide off his radar, and he isn’t getting enough done. But she’s wrong if she thinks he’ll be motivated to improve — while she was doing the next employee’s performance review, Oliver was scrolling through job postings.

Good or bad, feedback ought to be effective.

Feedback can, and sometimes should, be tough to hear. However, if an employee feels demotivated, criticized, disappointed or depressed after a feedback session with their boss, the manager failed. Oliver’s boss failed in a big way — nothing she said helped him improve. Or made him want to.

Congratulatory or corrective, feedback should motivate employees to do better work, position them for success and engage them. Reviews like Oliver’s just deflate people. Gallup research shows that only 10.4% of employees whose manager’s feedback left them with negative feelings (felt criticized, demotivated, disappointed or depressed) are engaged, and four out of five say they’re actively or passively looking for other employment.

On the other hand, workers whose manager’s feedback left them with positive feelings (felt inspired to improve or positive about knowing how to do their work better) are 3.9 times more likely to be engaged than employees who felt hurt, and only 3.6% of them are actively looking for another job.

Custom graphic. Workers whose manager’s feedback left them with positive feelings are 3.9 times more likely to be engaged than employees who felt hurt.
Custom graphic. Among workers whose manager’s feedback left them with positive feelings, 3.6% are actively looking for another job.

But this doesn’t mean positive feedback is necessarily effective feedback. Employees can walk away from a performance review feeling more engaged than ever, but without hearing what they need to know to improve.

That’s probably because, as Gallup research has discovered, managers generally don’t know what to say — only 14.5% of managers strongly agree that they are effective at giving feedback.

This highlights a clear opportunity for leaders to ensure their managers know how to provide feedback that makes workers feel engaged and motivated — and keeps them off the job posting websites.

Keep performance reviews both positive and effectual.

First, managers must understand that positive feedback is not false or partial feedback. To be effective, managers have to be truthful and comprehensive. But even unwelcome feedback can be given in a way that helps, not hurts. To keep performance reviews both positive and effectual, managers should:

  1. Start with wins. Managers can inspire employees to improve by discussing recent successes and asking employees to brag about victories from their point of view. Managers and workers may chart wins from different perspectives, but both points of view stoke employees’ confidence — helping them to figure out what led to their wins, and do more of it.
  2. Focus on specifics. General feedback doesn’t do much for employees. Oliver’s boss said his work is mediocre, but she didn’t tell him what great work in his role looks like. So whether discussing successes, wins, mistakes or failures, the more specific and focused the conversation, the more employees can learn and plan for the future.
  3. Pair encouragement with constructive feedback. In some instances, employees need correction. Mistakes happen, and when managed appropriately, they can be learning experiences. But managers need to ask what the worker can learn from the mistake. Employees appreciate a coach who helps them learn and get better each day, and they don’t always know what went wrong — or even that something did.
  4. Keep conversations frequent. Having meaningful conversations at least once per week keeps managers continuously attuned to their employees’ performance and workplace needs. And that routine assures employees that they’ll get the opportunity to be recognized, ask questions, discuss performance hurdles or blueprint their near-term work. Frequent conversations keep performance surprises to a minimum and help prevent big misses. And while these conversations may focus on different topics, they should always include goal setting, check-ins and project updates. Annual reviews, if your company does them, should be about reflection and evaluation.

Clearly, the point is not to say a negative thing in a positive way. It’s to say positive and negative things in ways that improve workers’ performance. It helps if managers operate under the premise that people want to do good work but sometimes lack information or specific talents for their role.

Why I don’t work with jerks.

I recently turned down an opportunity to work with a company that was run by a group of jerks. They fundamentally wanted me to make them feel good about their organization with really no commitment to a better workplace. I told them to save their money because they were going to need it to survive in the future. He is what I meant.
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Rethinking Competencies, Expectations for Leaders

This article is the first in a series about rethinking competency behaviors, feedback, and programs. IT is also how I help you improve your organizational performance

The simplest way to be clear about behavioral expectations for leaders is to communicate which behaviors achieve the results your business wants — not with a list of competencies that may or may not link to outcomes. Companies that don’t examine the behaviors that lead to the desired outcomes are liable to confuse leaders about what is expected of them.

That’s not at all unusual. Though knowing what is expected of them at work is an employee’s most fundamental need, Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report found that only six in 10 employees know what those expectations are. What’s more, just 41% strongly agree that their job description aligns well with the work they are asked to do.

The lack of clear expectations and accurate job descriptions creates an ever-present fear of being exposed as incompetent and being punished for it.

And managers may be worse off than the teams they lead. According to Gallup’s first perspective paper in a series on this topic, The Manager Experience: Top Challenges & Perks of Managers, managers are:

  • 15 percentage points more likely to say they have multiple competing priorities
  • four points less likely to say their job description is clear or that it aligns to the work they do
  • six points more likely to feel stress during a lot of the workday
  • 11% less likely strongly agree they get to do what they do best every day.

The lack of clear expectations and accurate job descriptions creates an ever-present fear of being exposed as incompetent and then being punished for it. Leaders have a real incentive to meekly accept lists of competency requirements, even if the requirements don’t align with their role.

Consequently, HR’s performance reviews can’t be entirely realistic or comprehensive. When HR must rely on an ambiguous, inconsistent, contradictory array of traits, skills, capabilities, knowledge, behaviors, and responsibilities — and trust, this describes far too many competency models — the job is far more difficult than it has to be.

What HR needs, what all leaders and managers need, is a fresh look at the behaviors that actually contribute to performance, development and success.

Competencies 2.0: The 7 Expectations for Leadership Behavior

Recently, Gallup researchers conducted a study involving more than 550 job roles and 360 unique job competencies. It showed that leaders achieve success, despite varied roles, organizations, and industries, by focusing on the behaviors within these seven expectations:

1. Build relationships. Establish connections with others to build trust, share ideas and accomplish work.

2. Develop people. Help others become more effective through strengths development, clear expectations, encouragement and coaching.

3. Lead change. Recognize that change is essential, set goals for change and lead purposeful efforts to adapt work that aligns with the stated vision.

4. Inspire others. Encourage others through positivity, vision, confidence, challenge and recognition.

5. Think critically. Seek information, critically evaluate the information, apply the knowledge gained and solve problems.

6. Communicate clearly. Listen, share information concisely and with purpose, and be open to hearing opinions.

7. Create accountability. Identify the consequences of actions and hold yourself and others responsible for performance.

Changing the expectation from a focus on competency to behavior instead allows organizations and their leaders to focus on the critical expectations of the job, not the things no one can control (e.g., idiosyncrasies), overly specific requirements (e.g., specific knowledge), and unrealistic aspirations (e.g., irrelevant skills).

What HR needs, what all leaders and managers need, is a fresh look at the behaviors that actually contribute to performance, development and success.

Anyone can gear their actions toward an expectation, though everyone does so in their own way. A leader’s “own way” can be identified and measured with the CliftonStrengths assessment. People who know and use their CliftonStrengths are:

  • 6x as likely to be engaged at work
  • 7.8% more productive in their role
  • 3x as likely to have an excellent quality of life
  • 6x as likely to do what they do best every day

This is why when I work with you we find your competences.

What Engaged Employees Do Differently

Most employees are not engaged — only 15% worldwide and just 33% in the U.S. are engaged, Gallup research shows. To figure out what’s gone wrong with their engagement, leaders should study the behaviors of their highly engaged employees: What are they doing that the others are not?

Gallup, no stranger to the topic of engagement, finds there are several patterns of behavior unique to highly engaged employees, including:

Despite challenges and barriers, the engaged don’t often let problems become an excuse for inaction or destroy their ability to perform.
They seek ways to operate at their best, which means they focus on their strengths and don’t spend too much time trying to do what does not come naturally to them.
They are intentional about their engagement. They have a plan and independently, proactively try to improve their engagement rather than expecting someone else to engage them.
They take accountability for their performance instead of blaming others when things don’t go as they want.
Are Employees the Only Ones Responsible for Engagement?
The natural question, therefore, is why not just teach workers to overcome barriers, focus on strengths, draft a plan and take accountability? Why make engagement part of a manager’s job?

It’s part of a manager’s job because Gallup finds that 70% of the variance in a team’s engagement is related to their management. Managers create the conditions that promote the behaviors of engaged employees (or just the opposite) with the relationships they establish. The manager is either an engagement-creating coach or an engagement-destroying boss, but both relationships affect employee behavior.

Coaches empower workers to take on challenges and use their strengths, which engages workers. Engaged workers don’t need or want a boss, but they will seek out their manager’s advice, assistance and advocacy to improve their performance. These empowering relationships nurture the behaviors of engagement — “You help me do this so I can behave like that” — that enable high performance.

The traditional boss, on the other hand, is transactional — “You give me this, I behave like that” — which can create learned helplessness, discouraging the discretional effort that engaged employees exhibit, and ultimately disengaged employees who don’t own their own engagement.

As a result, they actually teach their employees to need constant managerial intervention because they can’t overcome obstacles, plan, take accountability or operate with their strengths on their own. They have to be bossed, because that’s the environment their managers have established.

Both kinds of relationships require a manager’s close involvement, which is why managers have so much influence over engagement. But the kind of involvement is very different. The difference is especially noticeable in a key way: Coaches individualize, and bosses generalize.

The manager is either an engagement-creating coach or an engagement-destroying boss, but both relationships affect employee behavior.

All people have innate qualities that enable them to excel in particular ways. Matching those strengths to task or role can create extraordinary performance outcomes, and employees who work with their strengths tend to be more engaged than others.

Generalization blurs those differences. Bosses who generalize will have trouble capitalizing on strengths and may be unable to detect engagement problems.

Individualization allows managers to see workers’ unique qualities as well as their engagement needs, which are different from worker to worker, day to day. That perspective helps them help workers articulate their own engagement needs. There’s an exceptionally effective tactic for that, which managers can adapt for workplace engagement: the Socratic method.

Managers Must Ask Engagement-Oriented Questions

The Socratic method is a dialectic that poses questions to stimulate reflection and critical thinking. Coaches use the Socratic method — though most probably don’t label it as such — to help workers think through challenges and solutions, analyze their performance and plan their approach to their work.

These questions are always influenced by the human element of engagement, the foundation of Gallup’s Q12 engagement assessment. Employees perform at their best when these elements are fulfilled. Coaches incorporate these elements — sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, as the individual requires — to connect workers to their own engagement.

 

For instance, there may be any number of reasons a worker is struggling to complete a project. A boss would simply give a deadline, but a coach would also ask questions:

“This report has been on your desk for a while now. Are you having trouble getting the information you need to complete it? Do you know what’s expected of you? Does it seem so low-priority you can afford to put it off? Do you need help?

Those are process-oriented questions, but they all connect to engagement elements as well: access to necessary materials, having clear expectations, connecting tasks to the organization’s mission or purpose, proof that the manager cares.

Questions like those give managers perspective on each worker’s employee experience and facilitate individualization and advocacy. Employees’ answers direct them to align their day-to-day work with their engagement. Just having the conversation empowers workers to overcome obstacles, focus on their strengths, take accountability and proactively improve their engagement.

Those, of course, are the behaviors associated with highly engaged workers. They don’t surface by accident. Those behaviors are a result of environmental conditions constructed and maintained by managers.

That’s why those behaviors can’t be taught to or demanded from employees. Those behaviors are a spontaneous outcome of relationships that managers must carefully tend.

So, while it’s instructive to look at the behaviors of highly engaged workers to understand what they do that others don’t, the lesson to learn is not to be found just with the employees. It’s also to be found with the manager.

As of now, only 15% of workers worldwide have managers who enable the behaviors of engagement. That doesn’t give leaders a very large group to learn from — but it does show that it’s time to start learning.