The Lost Practice of Delivering Tough Feedback

by Stephen T. Messenger

April 12, 2022

In half all of companies, low performers are happier than high performers. How can this be?

It’s interesting to look around an organization at the end of the workday. You may see a few different people.  Those that are:

  1. Gone. They packed up shop and are halfway home
  2. Laughing. There’s nothing left to do so they’re joking with friends
  3. Working. They’re concentrating on a task and continuing to get stuff done

Best case, those still working hard are your best employees diligently progressing on a project they’re passionate about, enjoying their job.

But more than likely, and worst case, the boss has taken all the work from those that left or are goofing off, and they rerouted it to their best people.

Unfortunately, many bosses task high performers to carry a larger load. The low performers are relegated to the corner and not assigned as many or as difficult projects. They go about their day happy because they have no responsibilities while the high performers are stressed and overtasked.

The Big Problem

Leaders are afraid to hold challenging conversations and provide tough feedback to those not meeting the standard. This is ironic because it’s one of the reasons we need leaders in organizations!

Mark Murphy addressed this issue in his book, Truth at Work: The Science of Delivering Tough Messages. In his study of over 30,000 employees, he asks people to rate this statement: I know whether my performance is where it should be. The results:

29% of all employees know where they stand.

36% said they never or rarely know where they stand.

21% occasionally know where they stand.

If this translates to your organization, seven out of ten people you supervise are not certain how you assess their performance.

I’m going to take a guess that most employees who know where they stand are the top performers in the organization. Why? Because leaders find it easy to tell people they’re doing well. But they struggle to tell people when to improve.

Murphy says that many managers are intimidated by initiating performance conversations at work, but there’s a science that makes it easier. He recommends a simple formula for initiating tough conversations with employees the first time they require correction by using the acronym IDEAS.

1. Invite them to partner. “Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about XYZ?”

2. Disarm yourself. “I’d like to review the situation to make sure I’m on the same page with you.”

3. Eliminate blame. “And if we have different perspectives, we can discuss those and develop a plan to move forward.”

4. Affirm their control. “Does that sound okay to you?”

5. Set a time. “Do you want to talk now, or would you prefer another time today?”

This method is all about looking to the future and helping get employees back on track. It’s designed to break down potential defensive barriers and initiate a conversation to level expectations.

The book, which I highly recommend reading to harness the full power of tough conversations, goes on to teach taking emotion out of the conversation, setting goals during the meeting, and clearly articulating expectations.

Murphy does a great job articulating a process for holding initial performance conversations with employees, and then escalating accountability if there is no improvement.

All too often leaders fail to hold tough conversations. That’s why your top performers are overworked and stressed while your bottom performers and generally happy. It’s our job to get everyone trending towards the top performance list and hold those who aren’t meeting the standard accountable.

Make your top employees love their job, and make the bottom employees meet the standard. Your team will thank you.

Lead well!

Every single time you read, think, discuss, write, and practice leadership, you get better. Make this a daily habit!  Every week, we’ll post a new 3-5 minute read for you to exercise your leadership muscles. I want to encourage you to continue on your journey – it’s worth it!

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