Give Feedback on the Real Issue: Part One

I notice that every couple of months I find a concept that I become so obsessed with that it makes it into all of my webinars, presentations, trainings, and workshops – whether I’m talking about public speaking, dealing with conflict and/or difficult people, or work-life integration. This fall, I’m pretty sure that concept is going to be the growing epidemic of giving feedback on the wrong issue.

There are 3 key reasons that a person is under performing and is in need of feedback. It doesn’t matter whether said under performance is in the workplace, a romantic relationship, a professional association, or anywhere else. The source is either:

1. Lack of knowledge

2. Lack of engagement

3. Inter-or-intra personal conflict

The problem is that we typically give feedback on the symptom rather than the source of the under performance. As a result, we try to give people more knowledge (i.e., rules, training, and so forth) when the person knows everything s/he needs to know but either is disconnected from role (which again can be one’s role as an employee, lover, citizen, or anything else) or is having a problem with one or more peers or perhaps with his/her own self-identity (more on this next week.)

A quintessential example of giving feedback on the wrong issue happens with so many of my well-intentioned companies who employ a large percentage of young professionals. Typically, the script reads as follows:

  • Enthusiastic young employee reports to work full of enthusiasm for role.
  • Young employee goes from little-to-no-knowledge of how to perform job function to basic competence within 1-2 months.
  • Within 3-6 months, young employee plateaus in performance.
  • Within 6 months-1 year, young employee starts to regress, i.e., makes careless mistakes, misses deadlines, and so forth
  • Direct supervisor starts to give employee more information.
  • Young employee continues to under perform.

The under performance persists because the problem here isn’t a lack of knowledge. If it were, the employee would have never performed well in the first place. If someone has ever performed his/her role well, irrespective of context, s/he has all of the information required. The worst thing that can happen for him/her is to have the symptom addressed at the expense of going to the real source – lack of engagement or a relationship issue.

To revisit the script above, let’s imagine that this young employee is starting to make careless mistakes and her well-intentioned but misguided supervisor starts telling her how not to make mistakes when the real issue is a relationship one. For our purposes, this employee is walking on eggshells around a team member who unnecessarily lashed out at her. As a result, she is also self-sabotaging by questioning her competence and continuously replaying the blow-up in her head.

Until both relationships are repaired – the one with the co-worker and the one with herself – this young employee is going to continue to under perform. And unfortunately, the more her supervisor tries to teach her back to competence, the more that the source of the problem will metastasize.

As you think about the person or people in the various facets of your life who are driving you bonkers, unpick your assumptions about why they are behaving as they are. Ensure that whenever you give input or make suggestions that it’s addressing the real issue. And most importantly, if you aren’t sure what’s going on at the source, underneath the behaviors you are witnessing, ask!

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