Managers sometimes hesitate to give feedback to employees because they fear that their feedback may be perceived as biased or unfair. They might struggle with how to provide feedback that is objective and equal for all employees. Undeniably, delivering feedback constructively and tactfully can be challenging and uncomfortable. It takes training and practice to become more fluent in delivering quality feedback. But many managers aren’t trained and, as a result, they hesitate and the performance problems snowball.
The following example illustrates how a performance problem can unravel quickly and how delivering timely feedback can turn it around.
Inaction Due to Concerns About Bias and Fairness
Emily manages a mixed team of remote and on-site workers at a tech company. Over time, she has developed closer working relationships with her on-site team due to their physical proximity and regular face-to-face interactions. On the other hand, she has had less frequent touchpoints with her remote workers, including John.
Emily Sees a Performance Problem and Avoids Giving Feedback
One day, Emily noticed that the quality of John’s work had recently declined. As a responsible manager, she knew she needed to address the issue. However, she found herself hesitating. The crux of her worry was that her feedback might be perceived as biased or unfair, considering she had less interaction with John than her on-site employees.
She thought long and hard about her dilemma. Would John think she was unfairly singling him out because of his remote status? Was her perception of his work quality affected by their infrequent interactions? She didn’t want her feedback to come across as a judgment of his character or as a lack of understanding of his remote working challenges, and she certainly didn’t want to get a call from HR that she had a complaint against her. After several days of turning this over and over in her mind, she decided to wait and eventually she let it go and overlooked John’s underperformance.
In the months following Emily’s hesitation to provide John with necessary feedback, the team began to witness a cascade of troubling developments.
Productivity started to drop significantly. John’s continued underperformance became a bottleneck for projects, causing delays and impacting the overall quality of the work produced by the team. This placed a strain on the entire team, and tension began to build.
The other team members, both remote and on-site, started feeling the heat. They were increasingly required to correct John’s mistakes or complete tasks that he had not done properly. This led to resentment and frustration within the team, eroding the once positive and cooperative work environment they had enjoyed.
John himself seemed unaware of his slipping performance. Without Emily’s feedback, he remained oblivious to his decline in productivity and its impact on the team. This lack of awareness hindered his ability to improve, stalling his professional growth within the company.
Emily, feeling the mounting pressure of managing team dynamics, project delays, and quality issues, became increasingly stressed. Her performance began to waver, and her job satisfaction plummeted.
The ripples of John’s continued underperformance even reached the clients. Complaints started coming in regarding the quality of work and missed deadlines. The company’s reputation, painstakingly built over years, started to suffer, and some crucial business relationships became strained.
Most critically, the team’s faith in Emily’s leadership began to wane. They noticed Emily’s reluctance to address John’s performance issue, and this perceived lack of decisive action damaged their trust in her leadership. Team morale dropped significantly, and engagement levels hit an all-time low.
Emily’s initial hesitation to give feedback turned into a series of challenges, affecting not just John, but the entire team, herself, and even the company’s reputation. The scenario underscored the importance of timely, constructive feedback in managing performance and maintaining a healthy work environment.
Providing Objective, Fair, Constructive Feedback
To approach this issue responsibly, Emily could have decided to take a step back and gather more context about John’s work conditions. She also could have made it a point to clearly define the expectations and performance metrics that were applicable to all her employees, regardless of their work setup. By doing this, Emily would have been aiming to provide objective, fair, and constructive feedback to John, ensuring he felt valued and understood, just like his on-site colleagues.
Emily Sees a Performance Problem and Gives Timely Feedback
When Emily recognized the decline in John’s performance, she decided to take immediate action. She arranged a one-on-one virtual meeting with John, prepared her thoughts carefully, and ensured she approached the conversation with a mindset of understanding and support.
During the meeting, Emily first acknowledged John’s past contributions to the team, emphasizing the positive impact he had made. She then gently raised her concerns about the recent decline in his performance, citing specific examples and discussing the impact on the team and the project.
She was careful to focus on the actions rather than making it about John’s character, and she listened actively to his perspective. John shared some of the challenges he had been facing while working remotely, which had contributed to his decreased performance.
Emily offered solutions, including additional resources to manage his workload better, and offered to have more frequent check-ins to better understand and support his remote working challenges. She also connected John’s role and performance to the larger team goals to help him understand the importance of his contribution.
Over the next few months, a noticeable change was observed in John’s performance. With the constructive feedback and added support, he was able to address his work challenges more effectively. His work quality improved significantly, and he was more engaged and proactive in his role.
The team as a whole also benefited. With John’s improved performance, the overall productivity of the team rose. The earlier resentment dissipated, and the team’s morale and collaboration improved. Emily’s decisive action reinforced her leadership, and the team’s trust in her grew. Her stress levels also declined as team dynamics and project management became smoother.
Externally, the clients were pleased with the improved quality of work and timely delivery. This helped in reinforcing the company’s reputation for high-quality service and reliability.
By giving timely and constructive feedback, Emily not only helped John improve his performance but also fostered a more positive and productive work environment. It was a testament to the power of effective feedback and the importance of open communication within a team.
The contrasting scenarios involving Emily and John illustrate several key takeaways about the importance of delivering timely and effective feedback:
1. Address Performance Issues Promptly: Timeliness in addressing performance issues is critical. The longer an issue is left unaddressed, the more it can impact team morale, productivity, and ultimately, the business.
2. Feedback Aids in Professional Development: Constructive feedback is an essential tool for professional growth. Without it, employees like John may continue to underperform simply because they are unaware of the issues.
3. Feedback Can Prevent Misunderstandings and Resentment: By addressing John’s performance issues directly, Emily prevented misunderstandings and resentment from brewing within the team. Unaddressed issues can create a toxic work environment, leading to dissatisfaction among other team members.
4. Providing Feedback Helps Maintain Trust in Leadership: Emily’s direct and supportive approach in providing feedback reinforced her team’s trust in her leadership. Conversely, her avoidance of the issue in the first scenario led to a loss of trust and respect.
5. Holding Employees Accountable May Impact the Business’ Reputation: Performance issues not only affect internal team dynamics but can also impact relationships with clients and the overall reputation of the business.
6. Providing Feedback Supports Employee Well-being: Offering feedback is not just about correcting mistakes. It’s also about showing employees that their manager is invested in their success. By offering support to John, Emily helped him navigate his challenges, improving his job satisfaction and engagement.
7. Feedback is a Two-Way Street: Emily’s approach to feedback, which involved active listening to John’s perspective, underscores the importance of making feedback a two-way dialogue. It not only aids in understanding the root causes of performance issues but also empowers employees to become part of the solution.
Perhaps the most important takeaway for the manager is #4, that failing to deliver feedback may cause the entire team to lose confidence in their ability to lead. In other words, a critical part of the manager’s job is to address performance problems and if they don’t, they may be seen as ineffective, not the person who is failing to meet objectives.
More generally, these contrasting examples underscore the important role feedback plays in effective management, team dynamics, and organizational success. By investing in communication training, fostering a culture of open dialogue, and setting aside time for regular feedback, managers can become more comfortable and adept in this critical part of their role.
[AI was one of the tools used in the creation of this post.]