Crucial Skills®

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How to Keep Performance Feedback on Track

Dear Joseph,

I’m having a tough time giving performance feedback to an employee who is very much overconfident. I don’t want to diminish her contributions or discourage her. But when I give feedback, she deflects it. And when she is asked what she could have done better, she has nothing to offer. Due to this disconnect, she feels I don’t value her as an employee—which is NOT the case! We just need to close the gap! Any ideas?

Above Average

Dear Above Average,

Sounds like you’ve been having the wrong conversation. You’re caught in a dance, trying to talk about weaknesses while not hurting her feelings. We call this a “Content Conversation.” A content conversation is one in which you discuss the immediate presenting problem. For example, your client emails often have bad grammar. Or you show up late sometimes to critical meetings.

But content isn’t your real issue. Your issue is a “Pattern.” It’s not the weaknesses themselves that frustrate you most, but the pattern of behavior you see when discussing those weaknesses.

The best next step for you will be to schedule a separate opportunity to discuss this pattern. Don’t confuse the conversation with other performance feedback. Make it solely about your difficulty in having performance discussions. As you describe the pattern, be sure to do so factually. Don’t use inflammatory judgment words. Just recall specific behaviors that support your contention that there is a pattern.

You might begin like this:

“Hi Kara. I’d like your help with a challenge I have in sharing performance feedback with you. I’ve tried to pay attention so I could communicate it well. The basic pattern is that when I point out something that didn’t go well, you immediately respond by pointing out things that did go well. For example, in our one-on-one yesterday, I pointed out that you didn’t give Trevor a heads-up before turning off power in the old server room. You said, ‘And the project came in under budget.’”

Now, odds are that as you do this, she might pivot to saying she doesn’t feel valued. But don’t be diverted. Finish what you started before you deal with her emotional needs. Let me be clear about something: Your job is not to manage her emotions. That is her job. You are, I repeat, you are responsible to communicate how much you value her contribution. And you must do so persuasively and consistently in proportion to the truth about her contribution. However, if she chooses not to hear it, that is her responsibility. Surrender the need to manage her emotions. But retain the responsibility to communicate clearly. And for now, stay on topic.

If she tries to pivot to her emotional needs, address that as part of the pattern as well.

“Kara, this is a second thing that happens when I try to address performance issues. In the last three performance discussions we had, each time I shared improvement opportunities you said some version of, “It seems like all you do is point out my mistakes. You don’t notice how much I do right!” Honestly, Kara, that seems like an attempt to shut down my concerns. Whether I value what you do well and whether you can do better are two separate issues. When I raise concerns, I’d like you to stay focused on them and not raise unrelated issues.”

Finally, ask for a commitment and agree on “Who does what by when.” For example:

“Next time I want to discuss improvement opportunities, would you please avoid pointing out other things or asking whether I value your strengths?”

If she agrees, say, “Okay, in our one-on-one at the end of the month, I’ll let you know if this seems to be improving. Does that work for you?”

This is all doable. The key is to stay on track. Tee up the right conversation, call out attempts (even unintentional) to divert from it, and you’ll be on the road to better days.


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5 thoughts on “How to Keep Performance Feedback on Track”

  1. Patricia Thurston

    Re: How to keep performance feedback on track (Kara-Employee)

    QUESTION: is the supervisor a man? If so, this situation could be garden variety benevolent sexism. Women are often described as “overconfident” when they do their jobs competently, and are proud of the job they do. It can be especially troubling to a male supervisor when a woman gets recognition from others, who are not the supervisor, himself. Criticism can be used as way to remind her of “her place”, as the direct report. Women’s responses to criticism are often interpreted as “deflecting” or “angry”, when the criticism is not outright accepted with the smile and “good nature” expected of nice women employees.

    Older women supervising younger women can behave like males, especially in industries/work places that are male-dominated.

    Or, Kara could be stubborn and your advice sound in this case.

  2. John Shoucair

    “Above Average” stated “But when I give feedback, she deflects it.” That indicates there may not be enough continuous positive feedback, which is not clear from the question, and would make a huge difference in the conversation. Kara should never have had to remind AA “And the project came in under budget”. That should have been AA’s positive feedback.

  3. Suzanne

    I have found in our organization that, as part of the conversation, validating the positive helps to create a safe environment in which the employee is more open to receiving your concerns. This also helps to reduce defensiveness and the feeling that you are closed-minded toward their value. People need to hear what you say in a way they can hear it and for persisting issues, something has fallen through on this. I would then take more of the approach in the “Above Average” article yet always mentioning their value.

  4. Tracy

    Would also suggest that AA look at their own behavior pattern. Where and when does the positive come into the conversation. It is treated as an after thought or throwaway. Is it safe for the employee to bring up improvement areas or does the company overall have behavior pattern of using it against them when it comes to opportunities or raises.

  5. Hanne Wulp

    I love this response, and would also add something positive to end with, express her value, after she’s committed to the changed behavior/way of responding. In the end, the employee will benefit too from the change in behavior that is asked from her, she’ll only be valued more.

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