Employees need to know how they are doing--especially (but not only) if they're underperforming.
What may seem like common sense sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to managing people. Lately I have noticed that when it comes to giving an individual bad news, managers may let it slide until the last moment--at, say, performance review time. Then the critique is tossed out like a grenade that blows up any chance the employee may have of showing improvement, and--as a result--a merit increase.
This is not to say the underperforming employee deserves the raise but he or she does deserve a conversation about performance improvement prior to the appraisal process. When the conversation is wrapped around compensation the employee focuses only on the financial equation not the performance improvement.
But lately I have noticed an even greater issue that occurs with senior managers. They have a track record of competence but as they reach higher into the organization their flaws become more noticeable. Such flaws may be a failure to communicate effectively, a lack of presence, or even an inability to delegate effectively. The problems were there all along but did not become issues until the manager's span of control grew larger.
What happens next is no one wants to be the bearer of bad news so they hire an executive coach to set the individual straight. It will fall to the coach to talk about what needs to improve and why, saving management this onerous task. To clarify, coaches do broach the tough issues but those issues do not spring from thin air; they arise from context, and what the individual manager has been told about his or her performance all along.
Believe me when I have had to deliver critical feedback I have watched manager's eyes widen in surprise. They seem completely unaware of any issues. Part of this lack of awareness comes from their own shortcomings and inability to read the reactions of others around them, but that is no excuse.
Feedback from the boss is integral to improvement and success. You cannot delegate an outsider to deliver bad news. (One exception may be with outplacement services to laid-off employees, as depicted in the movie Up in the Air; George Clooney's character is the designated hit man for companies too squeamish to terminate staff.]
A manager who avoids giving an employee feedback is not doing his or her job. Today's managers need to coach their employees. Specifically, they need to set clear expectations about the work and provide the support the employee needs to do the job. That includes giving feedback.
A manager who avoids these tasks is treating his employees as costs, not resources. Failing to provide insight into how the person is performing leaves the individual operating in a vacuum. It is not simply underperformers who need feedback; it is high performers, too.
Straight talk about performance may be an expectation but too often it is not given leaving the employee to wonder. And as research shows when good employees feel undervalued they will find someplace else to work, leaving the manager with reports who have no other options. And that is no formula for success.