Coaching Solutions: Giving Effective Feedback

By Lawyer and Executive Business Coach, Irene Leonard

Reprinted with the permission of the Association of Legal Administrators Puget Sound Chapter, February 2008.

Employees given effective feedback accept the feedback as helpful and in their best interest, and change their behavior in response to the feedback.

Giving negative feedback is a difficult, yet vital, management skill. The best work environments foster learning and growth, and giving and accepting feedback must be a part of that environment for improved work performance. Feedback that reinforces good behavior is the ideal way to foster growth. But there are times when it's important to discuss a conflict that's brewing in order to stop it before it gets beyond repair.

It's necessary to give effective feedback in order for employees to have the benefit of knowing where they stand, so they can take steps to improve. If you fail to give feedback with poor performers, they won't know what to change, even if they sense your disapproval.

We often have beliefs, such as: If I tell him about his mistakes, he'll think I'm mean; I'll hurt her feelings; or He might quit. Such beliefs interfere with our willingness to give negative feedback. It's ironic, since our motive for giving feedback is well-intentioned; we want to help individuals to improve their performance so they can become more successful.

How to give Negative Feedback Effectively

Consider the sandwich approach in giving feedback. Start with saying something positive about the employee's skills or talents before describing the negative behavior. Plan to finish the conversation positively. Be sincere in making the positive statements; if you lie you lose credibility. In between the positive statements, give negative feedback based on behavior specific facts, not subjective opinions.

Negative feedback should not be given when you're angry or upset. Wait until you can be calm and clear. The conversation should be private and not rushed or interrupted.

When giving negative feedback, it's important that you describe an actual result of poor behavior or performance, and not make judgmental comments about the employee because of his/her performance failure. For example, say "You gave me this report you prepared containing these five mistakes", rather than "You're careless because you make so many mistakes."

Be clear what improved behavior you want from the employee. For example, "When you prepare a report for me, I want it to be 100% accurate. Accuracy is more important than speed." Let the employee know what's important about the improved performance. Have the employee confirm his or her understanding of your expectations.

It's useful to be empathic when giving feedback. Try to appreciate how the employee might feel when hearing they've made an error. Be polite. Be appreciative. Be respectful. Stick to observations, not opinions concerning what occurred.

Additionally, be aware of your comment's impact on the employee. Pay attention to whether he or she goes into a distressed state. If this happens, the employee is not likely able to hear what you're saying. When you are calm and objective, you're more likely to help the employee avoid a "shut down" state. If it does happen, give the employee a breather to calm down.

Give employees a chance to talk about their thoughts regarding their performance. Listen to them so they feel heard. Talk calmly through any differences. An employee may have valid reasons for their current behavior. The purpose of feedback is to create awareness that leads to improvement or correction of the employee's performance. Giving them a chance to talk helps them increase their awareness, and makes them more able to hear what you are saying.

Let the employee come up with their own solutions as to how to improve their performance. By suggesting the solution, the employee is more likely to follow through. Make the employee accountable by arranging to talk again at a future date. Be specific about the date. End the discussion by positively acknowledging the employee.

A Coaching Example: Giving feedback to a legal assistant

Sue is a legal assistant who works for three senior lawyers in the firm. She's been with the firm for over eight years and generally does good work. One of the partners asks you to speak with Sue regarding a problem he had with her performance.

Set up a time that works for both you and Sue to engage in a private conversation.

You: Good morning Sue. You're a valued employee both to me and to the firm. You're well-liked, smart, efficient and always willing to push yourself to help. Thank you. I'm hoping we can talk through a performance concern raised by Joe in a way that will help you grow and improve. I know that's important to you.
Sue: Okay, thanks.
You: Sue, Joe asked that I talk with you to see how I could help you avoid repeating the mistake you made when you sent the Smith materials to the wrong party's address. Tell me what happened.
Sue: Oh, I know Joe was mad at me. And I don't blame him. I feel badly about what happened. But sometimes it's hard to juggle all the demands that the three partners place on me. That day all three of them had rushes that had to be handled simultaneously, and truthfully, I was so concerned about getting everything done before I had to leave for my doctor's appointment that I guess in my haste I was careless. I'm so sorry.
You: Okay. I'm hearing that you had too much on your plate for the limited time you had that day. What do you think you need to do to avoid making such a mistake in future?
Sue: Well I guess I'd better come up with a way to make sure that I double check my work.
You: How can you do that?
Sue: Well, I can go to the partners as soon as I realize I'm going to have difficulties handling the work they've delegated to me and let them sort out what has priority. I guess I could have also come to you and asked for help.
You: Yes, both of those are good ideas.
Sue: But when it's that busy it seems more efficient to just keep on trying to get the tasks done myself. But I guess I've learned that when there's too much for me to do, I need to get help rather than move too fast and get sloppy. I'm sorry. I'll do my best to make sure I don't let having too much on my plate result in anything else going out incorrectly. I'll slow down and make sure I double check my work.
You: Thank you, Sue. I appreciate your being conscientious and resourceful in coming up with a solution. I also appreciate your candor and honesty in talking about the difficulties of your current workload. Remember, I'm a resource when you get overloaded. Let's talk next Tuesday at the same time so you can let me know how you're doing with your workload.

I welcome receiving your specific coaching questions for a future article.

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© Irene Leonard. After more than 19 years as a business lawyer, Irene Leonard offers practice development coaching services as an executive business coach. She helps lawyers improve their ability to manage and market. Go to her website www.CoachingForChange.com or contact her at 206-723-9900 for more information.