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Give feedback that feeds performance

Listening
As a training and leadership development consultant for accounting firms, I’ve found that providing feedback is one of the top challenges for management. When it’s done well and promptly, giving performance feedback can yield huge benefits – more productivity, better relationships, and more loyal, engaged employees. However, providing consistent, timely and honest feedback is something many managers struggle with.

The performance review is a prime example of inconsistency in how many supervisors provide feedback. In written reviews managers often address issues that they’ve avoided in face-to-face discussions. By the time the employee reads the review, they feel blindsided. Without a dialogue, how can they share their perspective? How can they fix a problem they never knew existed? This pattern applies to many, if  not all, other industries, to the point that major companies such as General Electric are scrapping annual reviews altogether.

Being timely is just as important. I often hear from supervisors who sometimes delay difficult discussions, fearing the reaction they’ll get. Or they’ll use email in place of a verbal conversation, which may result in the message being interpreted more harshly than intended.

The fear most managers have is in appearing disagreeable, or just plain mean. To offer ideal feedback, I recommend my clients describe specific actions or behaviors in the most neutral terms possible, rather than using labels such as “unprofessional” or “uncooperative.” When an employee repeatedly comes in late, for example, point out what time they are arriving and ask what could help them arrive earlier. You can even ask what’s keeping them from showing up on time. Adopting neutral language reduces defensiveness, which makes the conversation easier for both parties.   

I also recommend explaining the impact of their actions. CPAs can certainly relate to an impact that involves numbers such going X dollars over budget or wasting X number of hours (or billable hours lost).   

However, I’m not suggesting that feelings be completely omitted from the dialogue. As a former Big 4 accountant, I know that discussing feelings is not a common practice. A study of consulting firms that included law and accounting companies bears this out. These industries employ a concentration of “insecure overachievers” who work extremely hard and refrain from sharing their feelings, blaming themselves if they experience burnout or fail to meet expectations.

While drama does not belong in the workplace, feelings do. None of us are robots, and it’s healthy to acknowledge our own and others’ feelings in any situation.

But discussions of feelings should take place outside the context they create. If you are angry about what someone did, hold off on that feedback until you’ve cooled off a bit. I say this from experience, and here’s a real-life story about it. 

A finished project I’d requested from an associate was not at all what I’d asked for. I was annoyed and angry, and initially wanted to criticize every issue I had with her report. Instead, I calmed down first, then invited her to my office to talk about it.  After hearing her explanation of what she thought the assignment was, I realized how my directions were misinterpreted. It was a lesson for me on being clearer, and on the value of pausing before discussing heated issues.  

We all need those lessons, so here is a short list of DOs and DON’Ts for giving feedback.

Don’t:

  • Take the easy way out by emailing someone about an issue and shutting down avenues for hearing their side of the story. Speak with them first and listen to their perspective with an open mind.
  • Describe the problem or behavior using labels that are broad, harsh or subject to misunderstanding. Explaining to someone that they are talking over other team members who are trying to contribute to the discussion is much more helpful and clear than simply saying they are not acting like a team player.
  • React immediately if you’re angry or frustrated with the person

Do:

  • Review how often you are providing feedback. Is it timely? Can it be done more regularly to give the person an opportunity to make changes?
  • Pay attention to the balance of negative versus positive feedback. How often are you telling your team members what they are doing well?
  • Make sure it really is a problem before bringing it up. In other words, avoid nitpicking and focus on consistently demonstrated behaviors.

By taking both the work AND the worker into consideration, you can have a productive conversation that can reward good habits and help change bad ones, without creating new problems for you and your team.

Hear more from Kristen and dozens of other experts at AICPA ENGAGE in Las Vegas, June 9-14. Join your peers for four days of thought-provoking questions, candid insights and even some radical ideas. It’s your time to absorb, reflect, challenge and apply the best of what the CPA profession has to offer on issues ranging from technology and tax to marketing and practice management. Can’t make it to Vegas this time?  No problem.  You can also attend sessions online. 

Kristen Rampe, CPA, Principal - Kristen Rampe Consulting. Kristen Rampe, CPA, is the owner of Kristen Rampe Consulting, which provides leadership development, coaching and training to forward-thinking accounting professionals and their firms. 

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