Feedback that builds relationship

A supervisor recently sent us this question:

I am a supervisor with several direct reports. I have good relations with all of them, except one. I recently had to give her performance feedback to help her get back on track with her peers. She became defensive, blamed others, yet seemed to accept the feedback by the end of the meeting. Unfortunately, I haven’t noticed any changes over the last few weeks. And earlier this week, she accused me of not doing a good job in front of my boss. I don’t want her performance issue to escalate into other problems. How can I get her to follow my directions?

I commend you for wanting to help your direct report improve her performance. There are a lot of details I don’t know about your unique situation, but based on what you have written, I wonder if the way you are delivering your message is creating resistance to it. How a supervisor attempts to influence performance often has more impact than the advice given.

A common mistake people make when giving feedback is a belief that if we just tell the other person, that person will understand and change. Think about the last time someone told you to do something. What was your response? If you are like me, it was probably resistance.

My wife recently told me to make a school lunch for our daughter. I was busy cleaning the dishes from breakfast before leaving for work. I blurted out, “You make the lunch!” a bit more forcefully than I intended, and certainly more forcefully than the situation required. When people tell us to do things, we seem wired for resistance. That’s good to know. If we want to do a better job influencing others, we can stop telling and start getting curious.

Instead of telling your direct report what you want her to do again, can you find out why she isn’t currently doing it? Is there something, or someone, getting in her way?  Does she know how to do it? Does she care? Might she have a better approach—or part of a better approach? Perhaps your message wasn’t clearly understood before—even if you thought it was. How can you more effectively confirm understanding, both hers and yours?

A conversation that explores these kinds of questions seems at odds with our common notion of giving feedback—as if information should flow in only one direction. If you get curious, you won’t get frustrated.  Your questions will open  possibilities of what can be learned and accomplished together.

The answers to your questions can help you learn more about the realities of her work world and how she sees her place in it. Your questions can help her learn more about your expectations and needs. You will probably even find that as you learn more about each other, your relationship improves.

I’m intrigued by your last comment: How can I get her to follow my directions? That makes me think that your ultimate goal is conformity—she does what you say. I wonder, is that really what you want?

My guess is that what you want is a capable employee who can make quality decisions and act on them (so you don’t have to). If that’s your real goal, keep that in mind. It will help you create the conditions for learning – and improving your work relationship – much more effectively.

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