You’re Not Terrible–And Other Employee Feedback

Posted on January 9, 2020

Adults with no shame

Today’s Buzz is Brought to You by our Finger Lakes Correspondent, Matt Horn.
Digitally stalk him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Please direct all complaints to Kirsten Wyatt.  She’s the one who gave me a ProudCity account.

What I’m Reading:  The Book of Mistakes, by Skip Prichard (From the title, I assumed it was an unauthorized biography of myself.)

What I’m Listening to:  Van Morrison Radio on Pandora (There’s more John Mayer than you would think.  Not too much Mayer, but more than you expect.)

What I’m Watching:  The Irishman (for the 14th time since its release.  Any move featuring a Stuckey’s is right up my alley.)

Boss giving feedback

So you wanted to be a manager, eh big shot?

Well, it’s not all martini lunches and expense accounts like Don Draper and Mr. Spacely.  There you were, cruising along with all of your best practices tucked under one arm…the whole world ahead of you…a rising star.  The organization’s newest manager.  You took on a few more projects, nabbed some budget responsibility, and now they’ve even assigned you a few team members to tackle your mission.  You’ve read and re-read Somehow I Manage.  You’ve perfectly packaged all of your Knope-isms, and you’re on the path to success…and then…BAM!  A team member slips up.

It happens.  Our work depends almost wholly upon people.  People make mistakes (well, most of you do).  How does employee feedback work?

The worst performance evaluation I ever had was at the end of my first year as a City Manager.  Being evaluated by a City Council is tough anyway.  Nine members, lots of viewpoints, lots of conflict.  The Council each submitted individual evaluations, and I submitted a self-eval.  The Mayor aggregated the scores, and there it was.  A 3.2/4–MEETS EXPECTATIONS.  Ugggghhhh…

In all honesty, it wasn’t the best performance year of my career.  But still…meets?  Ugggghhh…The really fun part about City Manager performance evaluations is that the results are public.  Very public.  Newspaper public.  I remember my friends and family being horrified at my having to traverse this ordeal.  “It’s part of the job,” I disingenuously responded, dying inside.

The one comment that sticks in my mind, as the Council members took turns on the dais providing their own individualized summaries of feedback (cameras and reporters in tow) came from a guy who had not been shy about providing feedback on the fly throughout the year.  “He’s not terrible,” he said, “He’s just not what I expected…” Yep.

Asking the righ questions

To be fair, City Council members are, for all intents and purposes, volunteers.  They aren’t trained HR professionals, and many of them haven’t dealt with employees before.  In cities with City Managers, a Council only has two or three direct reports (Manager, Clerk, Attorney), so they don’t have a ton of opportunities to practice this special craft.

But you will have such opportunities.  Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, that (depending upon who you ask) have made me a better people manager:

  • Set Clear Expectations:  You can’t provide feedback without first providing clear expectations.  Your staff members are not mind readers (unless you manage a fortune teller, in which case I can provide alternate advice).  At hire, annually, and at commencement of each project, sit down with the team member and clearly lay out your vision for success.  Be there when there are questions.  Put things in writing.  Give them every tool they need to meet, nay exceed, your wildest expectations.
  • Live and Timely Feedback:  There is no value in quietly observing performance, keeping a treasure trove of notes, and dumping them all in one “airing of the grievances” at annual evaluation time.  Find the balance between looking over their shoulder constantly and simply hoping for self-correction.
  • Find a Management Friend:  Grab a peer and talk through your concerns.  Verify that they see it the way you do.  Rehearse feedback, especially negative feedback.  Ideally this is an HR staffer who can coach you through both the quality of your feedback, and any legal or policy concerns that need to be covered.  But, if your HR Director is a Toby, then find another friend in the org that you can commiserate with.
  • Be Direct and Clear:  If you’ve read this far, you can tell that I am a rambler.  I also hate giving negative feedback.  These two personality traits usually result in me ambling through a difficult situation, inserting vaguely relevant anecdotes, and giving milk-toast direction.  The employee leaves confused, and I remain unfulfilled–the situation only barely resolved (if that).  Rehearse your points, eliminate the small talk/pleasantries, never minimize or make light of the issue, and be sure that the team member is clear on what went wrong and what your expectations are moving forward.

It’s never all bad, right?  Be sure to spend far more time providing positive reviews when team members have wowed you.  Create a culture where the team learns from failure, and has a clear picture of what success looks like.  You’ll get lots of mileage out of a great feedback regiment.

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