We’ve heard it before. Providing ongoing feedback throughout the performance management process is a wise investment that can pay huge dividends. Just-in-time feedback can leverage our training investments, bridge the skills gap, and develop leadership among managers—all at minimal cost. Got it.
Just one question. Giving feedback is never as easy as it sounds. How do we do it in the moment in a way that people can hear us, not take offense, and be empowered by our observations?
Success comes from being clear and intentional about five things:
- Context – what assumptions we bring to the feedback conversation and our relationship
- Language – what distinctions we make and what words we use to share what we distinguish
- Expectations – what we expect of each other
- Assessments – what judgments we have made and the facts we have to back them up
- Results – what we’re committed to producing through this conversation.
The context from which we observe and communicate determines what we see and what we don’t see about the other person, what we consider is possible and what seems impossible for them. Context is decisive.
The good news: as leaders, we have more than one context available to us. Effective just-in-time feedback starts with consciously choosing and creating the best context for the one-on-one conversation we are having with the person in front of us.
Wearing our “manager’s hat”, we usually come into a just-in-time feedback conversation for the purpose of motivating an individual to improve and to “fix” their actions and behaviors. We know the legal consequences of not clearly recording and communicating any gaps between the job requirements and their performance. And so we’ve been measuring their performance against our expectations. We’ve been tracking their critical incidents and mistakes, ranking them against others, or assessing changes in their competency levels. Our responsibility is to ensure they develop in such a way that they can fulfill their responsibilities to the organization.
Within this “corrective” context, our feedback remains remedial, focusing on making sure people change in the ways we tell them to deliver specific results. This approach to handling performance issues often comes across as directive and controlling. While useful in some situations, feedback delivered from this “corrective” context can generate multiple forms of resistance, ranging from covert back-channel complaints to peers and superiors to open conflict or to, worst of all, demotivation and declining performance.
Let’s switch hats now. As a mentor, we approach almost every conversation—and especially real-time feedback—as an opportunity to share best practices and success strategies. Our responsibility is to contribute our wisdom, knowledge, and experience in support of developing others. We have been measuring our mentee’s performance against our assessment of “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad” choices as compared to similar situations we’ve encountered. We’ve been observing what they’ve been learning and where they can still learn something from us.
Within this “prescriptive” context, our input will be shaped by any assessments we have about choices the person made that didn’t work out well and any belief we have that we know the “right way” (or at least we know of a “better” way based on what has worked for us in the past). Our feedback will tend to come across as solution-oriented.
Solutions can have practical value when our mentee is dealing with challenges that we’ve previously encountered and overcome. But prescriptions have their limits. They can reinforce black-and-white, either-or thinking and create false dilemmas (situations in which only limited alternatives are considered). Unless we are careful, dealing in prescriptive solutions can also create an expectation that something our mentee has to do will be difficult based on our past experience—an expectation that can then become a roadblock or a self-fulfilling prophecy for them.
Now let’s look at what masterful coaches do. They create a powerful context for aligning an individual’s purpose with career goals, professional development, and personal growth. Coaches commit to their coachee’s commitments—whatever they may be. Coaches use specific linguistic tools to give their coachees new ways of observing and relating to themselves, other people, and their circumstances.
Taking a coaching approach means coming into a real-time feedback conversation as if it has the potential to produce a breakthrough in the person’s performance within what they’re committed to—which may not necessarily be what the organization needs or expects from them. When we wear our “coach” hat, we focus on helping people increase their self-awareness and explore different perspectives and possibilities. We don’t put forward “right” or “wrong” ways of doing things: we’re helping individuals discover the many ways they can do things and the potential futures their choices may generate. We not only use mistakes, failures, disagreement, and conflict to deepen learning, but we also welcome them as ways to evolve our coaching relationship. Within this context, what we contribute as just-in-time feedback is, therefore, less likely to be interpreted as “criticism” or “harassment”.
Within this “generative” coaching context, people who receive real-time feedback are left with two things: the insight that there are many ways they can do things, and the realization that they are now more aware of some of the considerations to take into account when choosing. This doesn’t require that we, as coach, have “answers” for their problems and challenges. It does require, however, that we appreciate them as they are for who they are and respect their ability to grow, to learn, and to make their own choices.
What better way to instill a desire for continuous improvement?
Originally published by HRVOICE.ORG (now People Talk Online), Chartered Professionals in Human Resources of British Columbia and Yukon