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Useful Feedback Happens Before Things Escalate

Tip number six (out of the eight I originally outlined) is that to make feedback useful, it has to be delivered while there's still time for the recipient to change their behavior. This means giving it before it's too late, before there's no going back, before there's no hope - before you want someone fired.

When I was working at an ad agency, I remember a manager coming to HR and asking for someone to be fired. "She's too hard to work with. She won't take feedback, she won't listen to the others on the team, and she's not delivering good work." The manager's HR Business partner pushed back, asking if the manager had addressed these issues with the employee before and she said no, but "now the client wants her off the business and we have to take her off."

What's the difficult employee supposed to learn from this situation? How is she supposed to do better next time? If nobody tells her that she's "difficult" (and ideally breaks it down into observable behavior she can change), she's going to keep working the same way and that's not good for anyone.

Feedback is no good when it comes too late. When there's no chance for the employee to change their behavior without suffering severe consequences, it's simply unfair. (Unless of course the behavior was illegal or clearly stated as something for which the organization has no tolerance.) I have mixed feelings about performance improvement plans - they're certainly better than just letting employees go without giving them a chance to implement the feedback or get better at their jobs, but usually, by the time they're implemented, the window is already closed and the employee is just checked out, permanently rooted in the old behavior, or just riding the PIP out until the inevitable happens.

More than once I've seen managers put people on performance improvement plans because of an issue they failed to address when they first saw it - when it was no big deal. I had a woman work for me once (when we all worked in an office) who started coming in five minutes late. The next week it was ten. By the time I did anything about it, she was coming in 30 minutes late every day. But it was too late -- she wasn't willing to change and knew I hadn't been paying attention.

If there's performance that doesn't meet your expectations -- no matter how big or small it is -- if it doesn't work with your team, mention it. Explain the performance you'd rather be seeing. Ask about what's causing it. Feedback doesn't have to be punitive and it shouldn't be a monologue. It can be a simple conversation of "Hey, that's not working - can we do it a different way?" That way you can address it before it can't be changed.

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