Most people will admit that feedback is an important part of the relationship between a manager and an employee. If you asked them to explain why, however, you’re likely to encounter an answer resembling “it just is.” A slightly more thoughtful response would suggest that feedback gives a manager a chance to tell the employee what he is doing right and wrong. Along these lines, books on management strongly assert that feedback is crucial to employee development and should be a priority. The feedback process is described as something a manager does and controls, molding the malleable employee and persuading him to improve. This position is problematic because it erodes the employee’s sense of self-efficacy, making him feel dependent on the manager’s leadership and good graces.
Contrary to the assertions of management books, the most important element of feedback is the employee’s chosen attitude toward it, not the manager’s leadership over the employee’s reaction. Feedback is profoundly destructive when an employee views it as a dreaded one-on-one with the authority figure who has power over his career. He hides the mistakes he has made, obscures realities, and generally squirms in his chair to avoid being pinned down and thoroughly assessed. In such an outlook, gathering storms of anxiety hang over the employee’s head because he isn’t sure how feedback can be helpful. A similar feeling attacks us when we sit in the dentist’s chair. “Sure,” we admit, “my teeth need attention, but does it need to be so painful?”
Too often, feedback loses its potential effectiveness because the manager and the employee don’t share a common understanding of it. It is too easy for the employee to anticipate that the manager will torment him with authoritative hectoring that he will endure in the moment, while subsequently maintaining his habits. Consequently, the manager can downplay or dismiss the feedback process because she thinks the employee hasn’t been listening and isn’t coachable. In this scenario the employee is obstructing his success by not being prepared for the meeting—he simply arrives, timid and unsure, like a boy arriving at the doctor’s office to get his immunization shots.
Unprepared employees enter the feedback session without knowing what to expect. To them it feels like being ambushed by the manager’s assessments and comments, which seem ambiguous and unfair. The coachable employee, on the contrary, reduces his qualms and prepares himself for the meeting by writing an agenda and hand delivering it to his manager. He explains to her that his agenda isn’t an attempt to supersede hers, but he hopes his input will help enrich the conversation.
In the agenda, a coachable employee has gathered concrete data referring to the key performance indicators that his manager had set and emphasized in the previous feedback meeting. He shows that he has internalized his manager’s message and is self-monitoring himself based on it. The agenda thus provides both subjective and objective information for the manager to assess how closely the employee is meeting expectations. Armed with this information, the feedback session can consist of ways to improve proficiency, evaluate tactics, and adjust goals.
Delivering the agenda face-to-face will defuse some of the tension. This interaction is an opportunity for the employee to prompt his manager about the scheduled meeting, giving her a chance to think about him as an individual employee, not merely one of the many that she must monitor.
Based on the informative agenda, both manager and employee will have an evidence-based awareness of what’s happening and why. If the employee doesn’t have a detailed understanding of his performance, he won’t be able to articulate it to his manager. Self-efficacy and motivation will decrease because he doesn’t have a sense of direction, and his work will seem to be a haphazard striving toward undefined ends rather than a determined effort to realize clearly stated goals.
The coachable employee connects his goals to the manager’s points of emphasis. If he is unprepared and without data indicating that he is fulfilling his role, emotionally charged defense becomes his dominant disposition. Untethered, the meeting may drift into broad critiques that the manager considers endemic to all of her direct reports. Broad brush strokes of gloom will prevail. The employee cannot blame the manager for this because only he has constant and direct access to his daily behaviors and the details pertinent to his performance.
It is possible that a feedback session isn’t a manager’s top priority. She might even dread the meeting. Providing her with an agenda will help both parties shepherd their thoughts, insights, and priorities, thereby enabling the conversation to focus on what the employee is doing well, what can be improved, how he views his role, and how his manager can help. Without an agenda, he’ll knock hesitantly on his manager’s door, unsure of what to expect, hoping only to emerge with his pride relatively intact.
During an uninformed and unstructured feedback session, emotion washes over the employee, leaving him drenched in insecurity and anxiety. He can’t wait to get out of the manager’s talons and get back to his desk where hopefully he will be left alone. Feedback is a bugaboo—a source of fear and annoyance—and the distracted employee asks himself: “Why does my manager give me so much grief? Am I deficient? Is she warning me that if I don’t change I’ll get fired?”
The best way to avoid these negative feelings is for the employee to view feedback as an opportunity to exercise control over his career, resolutely moving forward with his development. A coachable employee is eager to engage his manager in a feedback discussion. He considers it essential to his psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The manager helps create the conditions in which these needs can be fulfilled, but the employee devotes everyday to experiencing each of them. Like all of us, the coachable employee wants to go to work feeling autonomous, knowing that he holds within him the means of his success. He desires competence because it rewards his efforts and provides him with the ability to contribute to his own and other people’s success. His autonomy and competence direct him toward relatedness to his co-workers, customers, and community at large. Feedback from his manager helps satisfy these three psychological needs, which enables the coachable employee to find meaning and purpose in life. He has a vocation, not a job, and his proficiency surpasses his potential.
The coachable employee is open to hearing about his weaknesses, and doesn’t hide his challenges. This shows that he is invested in the process and that he respects his manager’s opinion. It also gives the manager a reason to be clear about what she expects because she believes he’ll do it. In such fertile soil, a trusting relationship grows.
The employee’s time in a feedback conversation should demonstrate his commitment and competence, what I call “informed urgency.” He can demonstrate informed urgency by discussing the data that he has collected about his performance, his reflections about it, and the evolving context in which he works. He can invigorate the trust-based personal relationship by establishing relatedness to his manager, seeking to understand the rationale for her approach, instead of considering her a fickle menace. Personalizing the relationship is essential because the employee creates the social circumstances in which he will be managed. Nobody wants to feel that he is being managed by an aloof robot.
The coachable employee reflects on his own experience and that of his coworkers to help defuse and decipher his manager’s approach. He prepares for how he’ll respond to certain questions or comments that his manager is likely to raise. Though he isn’t reading her mind, he understands her perspective. When she speaks, he untangles who he is as a person from what she says about him as an employee. Feedback for the coachable employee isn’t a personal criticism, but an evaluation of how his career is going and an exchange among colleagues intending to improve it. He chooses to be in control of making feedback effective. It isn’t something his manager does to him.
At the end of the meeting, he expresses gratitude to his manager and shows it by briefly summarizing what he has understood her recommendations to be. He asks for a few actionable steps and, if he’s in a fog, he asks clarifying questions. To show his commitment, he tells her that he looks forward to chatting with her more often in general, and in feedback meetings in particular. He leaves the manager’s office feeling well-equipped to head back to the front lines. A well-prepared and self-determined feedback meeting rejuvenates the coachable employee and strengthens his trust-based relationship with his manager.
What the employee brings to the meeting—what he feeds forward—determines what is fed back to him. In the end, without an informed agenda, the feedback relationship is vaguely suggestive at best, and tensely pointless at worst.
Dr. Joseph St. Meyer has earned bachelor's degrees in psychology from the University of Iowa and in history from Northern Illinois University. In 2013, Dr. St. Meyer was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. His intellectual training focuses on the origins and developments of modern psychology, philosophy, and politics. He has taught at Stanford University and delivered research papers at universities nationally and internationally. Dr. St. Meyer is a senior consultant at St. Meyer & Hubbard. He writes about coaching and coachability, especially the relationship between thought processing and performance.