How Top Supervisors Decide When to Give Feedback

A supervisor providing performance feedback - HR Consulting Lansing Michigan
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As supervisors, we have daily opportunities to provide feedback and advice to the people who work with us.  It’s our job to manage performance issues.  Sometimes the need to speak up is obvious; other times it is not.

When someone has made a mistake, behaved inappropriately, or done something counter to what was requested, you may feel frustration, disappointment, or full-blown anger.

If the topic needed to be addressed is emotional for us or has the potential to trigger an emotional reaction in the other person, it’s wise to take a moment and think about what can be gained and lost in the exchange.  We must determine if the payoff of having the conversation is worth the risk of harming the relationship.

There are only three effective choices of how to handle a performance issue with a staff member. Actually, these are the only healthy choices with any issue in life.  By thinking through these three options, it will illuminate the right path in any given situation.

A productive workforce - HR consulting1. Do nothing

For the action-oriented supervisor, doing nothing may not sound like an option.  After all, supervisors are hired to give people input on their work.  But hang in here with me and let’s think this one through by answering the questions below.

What did the person do and why do I have an issue with it? 

Start by getting clear in your mind exactly what the person did and what the impact of that action has had on the team, customers, or some other aspect of the business.

Was it significant?

I once heard sage advice from a therapist who was coaching a couple who had strong, differing opinions about small issues that they argued about regularly.  What she said was, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be married?”  If it’s small, just let it go.

Was it really a mistake?

Maybe it was an approach that was different than you would have chosen.  Think deeply about whether what they did was “wrong” or “different”.  Having a team of people with a variety of methods for getting work accomplished is an asset.

It empowers people to use their strengths and fosters creativity, both of which lead to higher levels of performance.

If it was truly an error, did they acknowledge it, apologize, and give assurances it won’t happen again?

If they did, don’t rub salt in their wound by discussing it further.  Most people are harder on themselves than anyone else could ever be.  They get it, no need to say more.  This is a chance to be empathetic and express confidence that you know they have the ability to follow through and do better in the future.

On the flip side, if they didn’t acknowledge the error or think through a plan to prevent future issues, doing nothing is not the best response.  They likely need your support slowing down, thinking through what happened, and hearing your perspective based on your experience.

Is doing nothing the best course of action or am I just avoiding a tough situation?

True performance issues will only stay on the back burner for so long.  When it comes to the front burner, it’s often put there by someone you report to when they see first-hand the unsatisfactory performance or they hear complaints from others. Rather than handling the issue proactively, you’re reacting because now it’s become a performance issue for you!  Not a good position to be in.  So be sure you’re not avoiding something that would be more effectively addressed now.

If I don’t say anything, how will I feel when I see this person tomorrow?

Can I really let this go or will I be holding it against them?  If you can’t drop it completely, it’s not good for the relationship and so doing nothing is not the way to go on this one.

If you can completely let it go and leaving things as they are isn’t harmful to the team and the organization, then standing down is the correct choice.

2. Discuss itHR consultants discussing performance issues

If you decide that doing nothing isn’t an option, the next step is to consider doing something. There are other things you could do such as hold a grudge, talk about the person to another supervisor, or announce their error in a staff meeting; but those things won’t help you, the other person, or the organization.  We’re looking for effective options.

The only real “do something” option is to discuss it with the person.  Work through the following questions to see if discussing it is right in a given situation.

Why do I need to talk to this person about what happened?

When thinking through the option of having a conversation with the person about the issue, start by getting clear about why you are having the conversation.

Do I just need to get something off my chest or is this just my ego defending itself because I’m feeling threatened in some way? 

These are things to work through with a job coach or a boss; dragging the employee into the conversation would not be fair or kind.

On the other hand, do you honestly want to help the person improve their performance or make a more positive impact on the business?  Or do you want to make sure the business isn’t negatively impacted by wasted time or money that mistakes can cause? If your answer is yes, then discussing the issue is the best option.

If your motivation is clearly to do what you can to change the situation for the good of everyone involved, then an open, supportive conversation is the right choice.

Can I say it without hurting the person or damaging the relationship?

The answer to this, typically, is yes.  If you’re clear that you have the other person’s best interest at heart and the desire to preserve the relationship, then that intention will come across.

However, tough conversations require carefully chosen words, so be sure to outline how you’ll approach the topic and seek coaching if you need it to ensure you come across in the positive manner you intend.

Ditch it

Sometimes the best course of action is to leave the relationship altogether.  As a supervisor, there are two ways this can happen; you can decide to go or you can decide the other person needs to leave.

I realize this sounds extreme, but it is definitely an option. Thinking through this will either put things in perspective or can be positively life-changing.  Let’s start by looking inward.

Is this role right for me?  If you find yourself frustrated more than you are energized or if you feel that decisions like this are emotionally exhausting rather than a problem to be overcome, then it could be that you’re not in the optimal job.  It could be the company, the industry, the field your position is in, or being a supervisor that isn’t a match for your talents.

Regardless of the specific environment, supervision isn’t easy and it’s not for everyone.  It requires a feeling deep down in your soul that the best way you can serve others is by supporting them as their supervisor.  If any aspect of the job isn’t working any longer, you’ll need to develop a plan for making a move.

If you know this role is for you and that most days it gives you more pleasure than pain, consider the person that’s experiencing performance issues.  

How many times have I spoken to this person about their performance? 

If unsatisfactory performance is more the exception than the rule, you know that the ditch it option isn’t the right one.

If the issues are happening frequently, have I documented and discussed them with the person?

If not, ending the relationship is definitely not the right course of action. When a low performer is fired as a knee jerk reaction, organizations can find themselves in legal trouble.

If it comes from out of the blue, it doesn’t make sense to the employee.  Even if they’ll admit that there are areas they struggle in, if no one talked to them about the issues, they likely don’t understand the severity of problems.

If the person would be completely surprised by their employment ending, this is not the best option.  Given this set of circumstances, you may have been doing nothing and it is now time to discuss it.

How do you decide?

What is your thought process for determining whether a performance issue is worth addressing or best left alone? Please share in the comment section below!

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