Feedback that Works - How to Approach that Difficult Feedback Conversation

Feedback that Works - How to Approach that Difficult Feedback Conversation

We have all seen those tornado scenes in movies where amidst the debris a wide-eyed, bawling cow spins through the air. Well maybe there won’t be cows in the air, but brace yourself. The global skilled-labour shortage is touching down like a tornado in Canada and it’s about to unleash a world of pain on unprepared companies.

According to Manpower Group’s 2013 report, ‘The Great Talent Shortage Awakening’, the number of employers who expect their talent shortages to have a medium to high impact on their business has increased dramatically to 54%. An executive survey by Deloitte as far back as 2009 showed that 65% of executives are concerned about losing high potential employees to competitors. The massive skill shortage will make hiring talented employees more competitive and difficult than ever.

If you don’t think this storm will affect you, well, that’s what the cow thought too. Consider just one piece of the talent crisis: Baby Boomers began turning age 65 in 2011. Data from the Pew Research Center revealed that 10,000 Baby Boomers will reach age 65 every day during the next two decades. And according to Statistics Canada, the Canadian workforce will decline by more than one million people between 2011 and 2021! Many companies are just starting to understand the impact of the ‘Talent Crisis’ and it’s now become a critical strategic issue worldwide. In their TalentTrends 2012 survey, Bersin & Associates found that more than 65% of global leaders cite “talent and leadership shortages” as their #1 business challenge.

We believe that companies need to significantly improve their efforts to retain and develop their existing staff in order to survive and thrive. If you’re facing a war for talent, you better be good at keeping the people you have. Jan Hein Bax, President of Randstad Canada, in their 2012 Skills Shortage Survey said, “The demographic shift resulting in retirements, a deepening shortfall of skilled workers and the growing mismatch between the skills needed and those available has evolved into an undeniable skills crisis.”

According to Bax, the skills shortage is becoming one of the great challenges facing the world of work. “To combat the lack of essential skills, there is a strong need to cultivate continuous learning and employers must invest more into their workforces”.

So if your organization is planning to grow and remain competitive, a critical piece of the solution to the talent crisis is the retention and development of your existing people, especially your managers, key employees and high potentials. Did you know that that employee satisfaction with performance reviews is a strong overall indicator of job satisfaction and intent to stay? Alarmingly, 72% of dissatisfied employees (and over half of those satisfied with performance reviews!) would strongly consider a job offer from another company according to a Globoforce 2013 Report. That’s a huge number of poachable people. Yikes! How many of your key people would leave for the right offer?

Like it or not employee turnover is going to increase. Recruiting for the right experience and skills will become a huge problem and it will cost you a lot more to attract and retain good people. You’ll also need to be even more flexible and open to changing your approach as an employer, because the values, preferences and work habits of the four different generations in the workforce will really make your head spin! All of these challenges will steal your profits while your back is turned dealing with your day-to-day operational priorities.

So what can you do to thwart the talent crisis and retain your key people?

If all this talent crisis stuff is giving you a splitting headache, don’t worry. There is something you can start doing today and it’s as simple as having a conversation. A vital component of the manager-employee relationship is the feedback conversation. Yet these are so often completely absent or are utter failures despite best intentions. Regular conversations between managers and employees lie at the heart of engaging, motivating, developing and importantly, retaining your people. However, even if managers have an idea of WHAT to say, they often struggle with exactly HOW to say it.

The Harvard Business Review Guide to Giving Effective Feedback (2011) states: “Delivering effective feedback is a critical management skill. Yet most managers say they dislike giving feedback and don’t think it’s as effective as it could be. Those on the receiving end say they don’t get enough feedback that they can actually use.”

Almost all leaders know that they should be providing their employees with feedback on performance, whether it’s corrective, developmental, or recognition for good work. Yet sadly there are so many common reasons for a not doing so, or not doing it well. These reasons can include an organizational culture that does not value or promote open communication and feedback. Or perhaps managers who are juggling multiple priorities lose sight of the long term, strategic importance of these conversations as they set their sights on more urgent operational issues. Or, it could be as simple as a lack of skills or confidence to do it well. Managers report sugarcoating or stumbling over their words when trying to be candid and fear of causing uncomfortable emotional reactions. In fact, no matter what the reason, avoidance is horribly common. Many people receive no feedback at all, not even a performance appraisal. The paradox of this leadership gap is that most employees, especially Gen X and Millennials, want and need more feedback. Preferably lots of it, regularly, even if it is difficult to receive.

This absence of regular feedback occurs despite the fact that the numerous and compelling benefits of effective feedback are intrinsically understood by most managers. Studies show employee engagement increases when any feedback is provided. Just think what would happen if really effective feedback was offered regularly. Effective feedback clarifies expectations and reduces confusion; it makes employees feel their work is important and valued; it provides relevant in-the-moment learning; it helps people make necessary course corrections; it improves employee performance, often dramatically; it enhances workplace relationships; it boosts employee engagement; and importantly, can greatly increase retention when competition for good people gets fierce.

With four generations in the workforce, retiring senior leaders and loss of knowledge, changing employment expectations, shorter loyalty spans and the critical challenges of finding and keeping good people, effective and ongoing feedback conversations are more important than ever before. We believe ineffective feedback has been the most impactful challenge within Talent and Performance Management for decades and is rapidly becoming critical with an increasing focus on retaining your existing talent. The good news is that there is now a huge opportunity living within this challenge for every employer.

Our Solution? Take a Coach Approach and Give Lots of Feedback
We suggest that taking a Coach Approach is the missing piece to providing effective feedback. Combining six intuitive and accessible elements of the International Coach Federation competencies with a simple 6-step feedback formula can teach managers exactly how to provide highly effective feedback for recognition and development (to focus on retention), or corrective feedback (for performance improvement). Effective feedback gives you a double benefit!

Knowing WHAT to say and HOW to say it will boost managers skills and confidence to be able to hold far more regular feedback conversations that all employees (Gen X and millennials in particular) crave and need. This in turn offers you a very accessible and powerful retention strategy, one that will also significantly improve performance. A pretty good reason to focus on feedback if a shocking 86% of companies are unhappy with performance management as it stands, according to the global advisory company Corporate Executive Board (CEB).

In Forbes Magazine in 2010, Candice Frankovelgia with the Center for Creative Leadership wrote: “Business coaching has gone from fad to fundamental. Leaders and organizations have come to understand how valuable it can be, and they’re adding “the ability to coach and develop others” to the ever-growing list of skills they require in all their managers. But in reality, few managers know how to make coaching work. Nearly half spend less than 10% of their time coaching others. With such limited time devoted to coaching, organizations need to be sure their managers know how to do it right.”

Taking a coach approach helps managers understand HOW to approach feedback and can be as simple as applying these six elements to your next conversation:

  1. Prepare yourself for the feedback conversation. Cast aside your biases and judgments and replace them with an open mind and objectivity. Be present and grounded and manage your emotions.
  2. Build trust with your employee. From the outset show that you care about their success. Be respectful and transparent and trust in their potential to improve.
  3. Ask great questions to explore the truth of the situation rather than assume you know the full story. Ask questions to expand their thinking and to help them generate their own solutions.
  4. Be a great listener by being fully attentive, paraphrasing and acknowledging them. Be open to shifting your perception based on what you hear.
  5. Build on their strengths and hold them capable of learning and developing themselves. Focus on their positives and leverage them to lead improvement with your support and encouragement.
  6. Be candid and direct with feedback that needs to be heard. Don’t sugarcoat it and always be honest, compassionate and respectful.

This Coach Approach can be applied to a simple 6 step Feedback Formula that comprises the WHAT to say steps for an effective feedback conversation:

  1. Begin with your purpose. Set the tone in a positive way and explain the purpose of the feedback and your suggestion for ideal outcomes.
  2. Remember to recognize the employee for what they are doing well specifically. Reinforce the big picture of their overall performance. No one does everything badly. 
  3. Get specific about the performance issue. Whether it is about attitude or behavior, or skills and task achievement, use specific and observed facts to explain your feedback. Be specific about the impact on yourself or others.
  4. Clarify expectations you have for their course correction. By explaining what you expect and comparing to current performance, you define a gap for improvement. Ask them how they think they can change and build on their thoughts.
  5. Explain the consequences of improved performance and also of no change. If there are no clear consequences, why should they change? 
  6. Establish next steps by agreeing who is going to do exactly what by exactly when. Offer your support and make sure you follow through. Set an expectation for ongoing feedback as part of your focus for retaining them and developing their full potential.

When managers can improve their ability to coach and develop their staff, especially with highly effective and ongoing feedback conversations, the culture of the entire organization can shift powerfully to one of developing people, maximizing performance and achieving far lower turnover than competitors. This in turn can yield a double benefit to the bottom line and will completely eliminate flying cows and splitting headaches.

A Flying Cow, A Splitting Headache was first published in the HRIA HUMAN Capital Magazine Spring 2014.


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