It’s a struggle for many people in leadership positions.  You need to give some honest but critical direction to an employee, while not turning into an ogre.

I’ve been there.

We’ve all heard about how to give critical feedback:

  1. Offer something positive and supportive, then
  2. Hit them with the bad news, then
  3. Follow it up with another positive statement.

You know what?  People have figured out this pattern, even to the point of cynically calling it “the BS sandwich.”  They’ve learned to totally disregard whatever positive things you have to say, and magnify the criticism in the middle.  They walk away cynical about you, your management technique, and the culture of the company.

Let’s think about this more carefully.

There’s three reasons why it’s hard for you to give critical feedback to an employee:

  • You’re not clear on exactly what expectations haven’t been met.
  • You haven’t created an agreement with the employee where he or she expects this kind of discussion.
  • You don’t know what change you’re really asking for.

What does this look like in reality?  Let’s begin with performance planning.

You start with an honest discussion with the employee about what the job is, and what results are needed for success.  For example:

“Your primary role is to assemble X widgets per hour.  As you become experienced, I expect that number to increase to be on par with others in the group.  And, because we’re in a competitive industry, that number will be generally increasing over time.  It’s not easy, but that’s how we stay in business.

I’ll expect you to contribute to improving the productivity of the group.  But this needs to be done in a controlled way – we can’t sacrifice quality, after all, and I need to have confidence in our projections.  We generally make decision about process improvements after group discussion, but ultimately it’s my job to be responsible for changing things.

I expect you to be honest and open with me.  If you make a mistake, it’s far better to let me know immediately so we can fix it before doing more damage.  I can’t tolerate employees who are dishonest, that’s one of my non-negotiable rules.

If you work hard and are reliably productive, I promise that I’ll help you as much as I can to succeed in this company.  I have my own limits, too, but I’ll do my best.

It’s critical that the people in this group help and support each other.  If you have an issue with someone, I prefer that you first go try to work it out with them.  I find this to be more professional and respectful than always taking issues to your boss.  But ask me when you need help.

My goal is to help you be productive.  I’ll give you some feedback and direction, but it’s always in the spirit of wanting to improve the contribution to this company.  I hope that you’ll feel free to give me honest feedback as well.”

This kind of conversation starts to convey a set of values, goals, and desired behaviors.  Notice that it’s two-way:  You’re talking about YOUR actions as much as the employee’s.  The purpose of this is to build a relationship and basis for trust.

This is a conversation, not a tirade.  So you need to listen as much as you talk, probably more.  You’ll end up with a slightly different behavior agreement with each employee.

It also means that you need to fulfill your part of the bargain.  If you said you’d provide regular feedback, do it.  When you live up to your commitments, employees will see why they need to meet expectations.  Perhaps they’ll even be inspired to go above and beyond.

This post was all about setting expectations up front.  Next time I’ll talk about giving honest and useful feedback.