Robert J. Binney, Kepner-Tregoe Inc.

For many of us, the frigid temperatures rolling across the United States legitimize weekends doing what we would have done anyway: park ourselves on couches and bar stools to watch football playoffs. (Mind you, not “football” in the global, grown-men-in-shorts-playing-keep-away vein, but real, honest-to-goodness, gridiron NFL Football. The one where a player’s foot isn’t supposed to touch the ball. At least most of the time.)

One custom that football and other sports fans share is the belief that we—the spectators— individually have the ability to influence the outcome of the game. This extends beyond home-field advantage to the ridiculous rituals and talismans that “ensure” victory. Irrational and laughable, to be sure, I for one was pleased to find a new pair of lucky New York Giants boxers under the Christmas tree. Surely, this will reverse their fortune next season.

Sports talk radio showcases this phenomenon—airwaves are filled with second-guessers and third-rate analysts voicing chuckleheaded opinions that range from the obvious, “It’s foolish to strand a runner on third” and “They have to get rebounds,” to the absurd, “I would have benched Peyton after the second interception.”  As sports fans, we somehow believe that our participation, from shouting at the television to throwing cups of beer, has a profound effect on the game.

The most obvious and most used form of participation—outside of foam fingers and rally caps, of course—is booing, as in booing the kicker for missing a field goal or booing the quarterback when he doesn’t convert third-and-long.  Why do we boo? Do we really think we’re providing constructive feedback? When Eli Manning hears the voice of the crowd, does he think, “What a notion! Perhaps I should try throwing the ball toward my teammates next time and not to my opponent.” (Note to Eli: Yes, you should try that some time.) Is Adam Vinatieri surprised to discover that wide right does not meet the expectations of Colts fans?

Imagine this behavior in the workplace. If Betty in Payables, for example, attaches this week’s packing list to last week’s invoice, should the office start jeering and breaking into “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye”? Obviously not. However, all too often, when receiving feedback from supervisors, our employees are not given useful information to help them be more productive. Worse, they may be suffering as their leaders vent frustration.

The Objective
To provide effective feedback, first understand its purpose. When done correctly, feedback is not punishment, retribution, or emotionally-driven. The fundamental purpose of feedback is to either support performance or improve performance. To support performance, don’t wait until there are problems. That contributes to an unpleasant atmosphere and perpetuates a feeling that leaders are trying to catch employees screwing up. When things are going well, that’s a legitimate time to provide feedback. To improve performance is not to correct it. This isn’t mere wordsmithing, but a shift in perspective. Nearly everyone would welcome the opportunity to get better, but who wants to be “corrected?”

Five Steps of Feedback
There are five steps to providing effective, constructive feedback.

1. Spot Opportunities. Often, feedback can seem like a game of gotcha, leaving employees feeling that they are only observed at their worst moments. Don’t let that happen! Pay attention to how they do their jobs and respond appropriately. We counsel our clients to look for success as well as trouble. Making the conscious effort to seek positive performance significantly increases the chance that you will find it. Be sure that what you’re discussing actually has impact on the operation or the performer. Telling Steve that you really like the way he formats his TPS reports doesn’t count as feedback if no one ever reads them.

2. Pinpoint What You Saw. This can be tricky. Feedback is not about opinions; if an employee disagrees with your judgment or feels that you are biased, you will support or improve nothing. Successful feedback pinpoints what was actually observed. Describe the performance as if you were doing play-by-play for radio or describing the action in a film. This helps the discussion remain impartial and focused. Anyone who’s ever argued with a golf pro about their swing, only to go back to the clubhouse and watch the video, understands how objective and useful a camera lens is.

When pinpointing, focus on what you witnessed, not how you interpreted it. Unless you have super-powers, you don’t know what an employee is thinking or what their motivations are. At the end of the day, neither of those matter. Avoid being judgmental. It should be obvious that we want to avoid suggesting that employees are lazy or dumb.  Even statements like “you’re not listening” or “you must be tired” are examples of us inferring something that may or may not be accurate. Telling someone “good job today” may appear to be feedback, but this won’t help her repeat her performance. Specific, pinpointed descriptions offer far more value than generalities or hyperbole.

3. Describe the Impact. Adults perform best when they understand why the performance is necessary. Most of us, no matter our role, want to feel that we’re contributing to something greater. The reverse is also true. When we think that what we’re doing doesn’t matter, we have no motivation to improve.

I worked with a plant manager who gladly withstood monthly lectures from accounting on why his team needed to change their receiving procedures. He’d listen, but make no changes as he saw no real benefit. In his view, it was better to absorb ten minutes of occasional pain (lecture) rather than have his dockhands chasing useless information. One Friday afternoon, the accounting team walked him through the convoluted month-end accounting tasks required because of his team’s insufficient receiving procedures. When he finally left the office after midnight, he scheduled a Monday morning staff meeting to revise procedures. Once he and the warehouse staff understood the impact of their actions on others, the need to modify procedures was obvious.

4. Pinpoint What You Want. Using the same guidelines of pinpointing what you saw, pinpoint what you want by describing the expectation in objective, clear, and focused language. Think like a movie director. Telling a supervisor to be “more accountable” is useless but telling him that you expect him to set clear performance goals for subordinates and monitor them against those goals provides a clear picture of what success looks like.

5. Test for Understanding and Agreement. This should be obvious, but both are often overlooked. “Do you understand?” is not the right question and few individuals will answer in the negative. Rather, ask to have the expectation repeated back to you, in your employee’s own words. A simple “yes/no” for agreement should suffice but only after understanding is confirmed by both parties.

No Booing…
Try to avoid performance conversations in the heat of the moment. Booing the quarterback is a spontaneous, guttural response. Feedback should be thoughtful and professional. Take the time to really think through the five steps and use feedback as intended – to support or improve performance.

…And no throwing beer.

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