A New Approach to Providing Employee Feedback for Small Business Owners

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feedbackSometimes you just can’t figure out how to deal with employees. Take Rebecca your receptionist. She’s excellent with clients, knows exactly what calls to put through and when to take a message, dresses professionally, and gets along with everyone in the office. She can juggle answering multiple phone lines while greeting multiple clients with ease, and is great in a crisis.

On the other hand, as far as performing her day-to-day duties, you can’t complain as to accuracy, but let’s just say prioritizing isn’t Rebecca’s strong suit. Take ordering office supplies. Sure, you never have to worry whether or not you’re going to run out of paper clips – but not when Rebecca somehow thinks getting the office supply order into the vendor is more important than the unfinished monthly report sitting on her desk – a report you need for this afternoon’s weekly sales meeting.

You’ve tried giving her positive feedback – you’ve tried giving her negative feedback, both to no avail.

Things aren’t always “either or” as in “either the employee’s behavior merits positive feedback OR the employee’s behavior merits negative feedback.” The world we operate in has a tendency not to be that straightforward – especially when we’re talking about human behavior, even more so when the subject is employee behavior. You may think you’re limited to one or the other of these approaches – but maybe what Rebecca needs isn’t feedback – maybe Rebecca needs feedforward.

Paying it Forward

You might have seen the movie “Pay It Forward” where the premise was that whenever anyone did a good deed for you that you should “pay if forward” to three other people. The idea is put forward by a little boy responding to a school assignment to “Think of an idea that could change the world.”

Now, that’s a pretty tall order – but Dr. Marshall Goldsmith professor of executive education at Dartmouth, prolific author, and well-known management thought leader has an idea that just might change the way small business owners approach managing employees. His idea? Instead of providing employees with feedback he proposes a process he calls feedforward.

Traditionally feedback has been “top down” meaning that a manager (top) provides feedback to an employee (down) regarding their performance. Fortunately the field of management has progressed to acknowledging that, while employees can learn from managers, it is also true that managers can learn from their employees. This has led to better communication between management and employees.

However, Goldsmith points out a fundamental flaw within both approaches: they focus on the past instead of the “infinite opportunities that can happen in the future.” Furthermore, Goldsmith asserts that focusing on the past is “limited and static” whereas focusing on the future can be “expansive and dynamic.”

True Balance

The notion that feedback should be “balanced” usually means the attempt to find some sort of balance between how many times you provide an employee with negative feedback versus how many times you provide an employee with positive feedback. It certainly doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to realize that too much negative feedback will most likely be de-motivating whereas too much positive feedback certainly isn’t going to improve an employee’s performance outside whatever it is they are already doing well.

This is where Goldsmith’s approach shines. Instead of struggling to come up with some impossible ratio between negative and positive feedback, the focus shifts to making observations about the past within the context of positively changing the future.

A Feedforward Conversation

Feedforward is not some inapplicable academic approach to managing employees at your small business. Feedforward is a process versus a “reprimand” or “compliment” you give an employee. Feedforward is a two-way conversation. Let’s take a look at what that conversation might look like with Rebecca the receptionist:

Small Business Owner: “Rebecca, I’d like to take a few moments to discuss this month’s report with you.”

Rebecca: “Sure.” (Rebecca is thinking: I wonder what I did wrong?)

Small Business Owner: “Before we begin, I want you to know that the goal of this conversation is to focus on how we can better use this report in the future to help our sales team. What we’re talking about here is what you can do to help make that happen, as well as how I might be able to help you as we move forward. I’d like to use this week’s report as an example we can learn from. How does that sound to you?

Rebecca: “Great.” (Rebecca is thinking: This is weird, I think my boss wants my help, not just tell me what to do.”)

Small Business Owner: “OK, so tell me what you think about how things went this week.

Rebecca: “I guess it was so sort of hurried. I almost didn’t get it done in time.”

Small Business Owner: “Why do you think that was?”

Rebecca: “Well, I had to get the office supply order out which meant I had to take inventory and that took a while.”

Small Business Owner: “Making sure everyone has the supplies they need is important. How do you think you could make certain that those two responsibilities don’t come into conflict in the future?”

Rebecca: “Hmmm…maybe I should change the day I do supply ordering to Mondays. Sales meetings are always on Fridays. That would give me three complete days to devote to the report. We could even plan to go over the report on Thursday morning together to make sure there aren’t any problems or errors.”

Small Business Owner: “I think that’s an excellent idea. You definitely got that priority straight. I’d like you to take a look at your duties and provide me with a schedule that allows you to meet your priorities. Let’s meet at ten next Tuesday to do that.”

Rebecca: “OK, but…” (Rebecca is thinking: She wants ME to set priorities?) “Well, what if I don’t prioritize things correctly?”

Small Business Owner: “We’ll work together on that. You know, Rebecca, you’re the one doing the work. You know what happens in the front office. I’d like to get your take first before I make any decisions as to how we want to prioritize your duties. Does that make sense?”

Rebecca: “It does, and I’ll be sure to do my best.”

– Guest Authored
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Last modified: January 22, 2013
Sean Murray


Category: Guest Authored, MPR Authored, Off the cuff, Small Business, small business owners, tips

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