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Take the Pain Out of Job Feedback Discussions

One of the most difficult aspects of leading, managing, and supervising is providing performers with negative feedback. Most people report public speaking as their number one fear; for anyone in a management role, providing one-on-one negative feedback holds that number one spot. Many managers not only avoid feedback, they do not do provide it at all.

Annual or bi-annual performance reviews are hated by everyone—employee and manager alike. In many companies, performance reviews and salary reviews are synonymous; the performance review provides the rationale for whether one receives a raise and how much that raise is going to be. It is often humorously acknowledged that everyone is on his or her best behavior for a few weeks prior to performance review time.

Generally, supervisors dread the performance review like the plague. For a supervisor or manager, the term “performance review” connotes uncomfortable past experiences. Even the smoothest performance reviews are accompanied by disagreement and tense discussions. The really hairy ones can have confrontations, emotional arguments, and disagreements that can do permanent damage to employee engagement.

Performance reviews are anachronisms. The usual outcome is that employee and supervisor become aversive to each other for a month or two. Of course, the culprit is negative feedback. The employee does not want to hear it (it is aversive by definition), and the supervisor does not want to deliver it (and usually is not skilled in the art.)

The purpose of the performance review is to change behavior, and the annual performance reviews are undeniably ineffective in obtaining that end. Real behavior change is the result of daily interactions between manager and employee. At best, the performance review focuses on the effects of employee behavior on some performance result. Employee behavior is not changed in a review; it is changed in the work setting.

Secondly, because the experience is so aversive to the manager, he or she tends to stay away from negative feedback as much as possible. The end result of their avoidance behavior is that performance feedback important to the employee’s job success is suppressed. Many employees have been demoted or fired with little or no forewarning that they were not giving satisfaction in their jobs.

Managers and supervisors should provide their subordinates with constructive feedback on a regular basis—feedback about behavior, not just results. Employee performance—job results, are the outcome of numerous contributory behaviors that can be observed and identified by a knowledgeable supervisor—one trained in Behavior Management. The management of employee behavior—increasing the frequency of value–added behaviors and decreasing the frequency of dysfunctional or unnecessary behaviors—is critical to maximizing the performance potential of an employee.

Learning how to provide constructive feedback—particular corrective feedback, is the scorecard for performance management efficacy. If a supervisor cannot address behavioral discrepancies, then the employee can not improve their job performance. Most managers react to results, a downstream measure of human performance. Behavior is the controlling factor for all performance results. Understanding how to provide tactful corrective feedback for undesirable behaviors is as important as the prudent and efficient use of positive performance feedback.

How do you make bad news palatable?—you have to be relaxed. Tension is an incubator for reactivity and emotionalism. With the proper preparation, you can comfortably engage an employee even when you know that you are going to be discussing some of their performance deficiencies. Preparation requires that you remind yourself that the purpose of your discussion and the feedback is to “help” the employee.

If you repeat to yourself that your purpose is to facilitate, to coach, to help the employee—with truth and tact and legitimate concern, then you will relax because you have identified yourself as a positive agent in the process. A supervisor-employee performance discussion where both parties recognize the supervisor’s intent is to help, not hurt, can be one of the most reinforcing experiences in one’s work life.

It is entirely appropriate to begin a feedback session or performance review with positive, personal topics. Start the event by relaxing both the manager and the employee; talk about some topics that are reinforcing to the employee. Create a positive context from which to begin the discussion. Remember, you will not change any targeted performance behavior in a feedback session or performance review. What you can do is provide clear identification of the behavior you would like to see changed (increased in frequency or modified in some way), or the new behavior you want or perhaps a behavior you would like to see stopped.

At the very least, the feedback dialog will clearly identify behavior that is aversive to you as the manager. Most employees will attempt to avoid behaving in ways that they are certain their manager or supervisor does not like.

It is important to use provisional language in performance review; avoid categorical statements. Many supervisors pridefully affect an aggressive persona regarding employee feedback. They brag about “telling it like it is,” or “being direct and honest,” (often a euphemism for being callously critical.)

After you have had a few moments of positive conversation, you should begin the feedback dialog by pointing out the employee's strengths; “Bob, the quality and accuracy of your report writing is extremely high. I always feel that any job you do will be finished on time.” Beginning with positives is a fair and honest way to start the discussion. The supervisor has a chance to relax and the employee is not guarded. It is a good beginning.

Don’t confuse a feedback session, the purpose of which is to change specific behavior, with a problem solving discussion in which you have to talk about something that went wrong—a discussion in which you are talking with the employee to determine what caused a problem. You can stop and say, “What went wrong yesterday with the backup system?” without having to follow the guidelines for a feedback dialog.

At the appropriate moment in your feedback dialog, you can state your behavioral concern: “Jim, sometimes I feel like you do the work yourself when you could delegate it to someone else.”

Notice the use of the words “sometimes,” and “could,” to soften the comment. It would be easy to be categorical and preemptive as—“Jim, you always do the work yourself when you should be delegating it to other people.”

The first statement is likely to be thoughtfully received, while the second may create a defensive reaction. If the employee has, in the past, successfully backed down the supervisor by expressing outrage or emotional disagreement, he or she has been positively reinforced for that behavior (a good example of how positive reinforcement often encourages behavior we do not want) and may exhibit that behavior in this situation regardless of the diplomacy of the comment.

The manager's tone, body language, and the words selected (their connotations) effect the emotions of both the manager and the employee. The emotions need to be managed before you can deal with the performer’s behavior. If the manager uses accusatory words or blunt, critical words it makes the employee defensive and angry--which in turn shuts down his or her receptivity to important behavioral feedback.

If the manager understands Behavior Management, then he or she is prepared for the employee's reactivity. Leaders and managers who have been taught Behavior Management are aware of how their words and non-verbal behavior are acting as positive reinforcers and punishers in a performance review. This training allows the manager to selectively reinforce the behavior of the employee during a feedback session--in real time. Although job behavior cannot be changed in a review setting, the employee's verbal behavior within that setting can be changed effectively.

As you identify a behavior that needs changing, like “Jim, sometimes I feel like you do the work yourself when you could delegate it to someone else,” then ask the employee a question about their response to your comment--a question like, “How do you feel about that?” or “Do your observations of your behavior agree with mine?” To ask an employee to observe their own behavior establishes a strong participative discussion environment; the employee is empowered to become an active participant in his or her performance evaluation. Most employees will react positively to this opportunity and eagerly participate in their own evaluation.

In this instance, Jim might say, “I am aware that I tend to do too much of the work myself, when I should be assigning it too someone else. It’s a habit I need to break.”

At this point, the manager can reinforce the response honestly (if you don’t feel it, don’t say it; the employee can tell the difference) by saying something like—“That was a good insight into your own behavior Jim. Are there any other behaviors you've targeted to work on?”

This response allows the employee to gain control of his own evaluation and make self-observations that his manager can reinforce. This partnership in performance management pairs the manager as a strong positive stimulus--as a reinforcer, and encourages Jim to take a self-management role in his own performance management.

One objective of Participative Behavior Management is to create a workplace in which managers and employees partner to reinforce and recognize value added behavior, another is to provide a employees with an empowered process that allows them to identify and influence their own behavior. We want employees to know how to identify and manage their own behavior; that is the ultimate objective of Participative Behavior Management.