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?
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.