A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at a conference on the topic of performance management. My first thought was “great!” – it’s a topic I have spoken on many times before, so I was fairly confident I could revamp something without too much effort. Yet as the conference approached and my enthusiasm for rolling out the same content waned, I began to ponder… Why is it a topic that we have to keep revisiting? Or perhaps a more pertinent question – why is it an area that managers find challenging or avoid altogether?
While we ruminate on that, let’s consider a scenario…
You have an employee on your team who has been there for about 8 years. Let’s call her Josephine. Josephine is very experienced and is good at her job. But she is resistant to change and numerous former managers have had difficulty in getting her to engage with some of the newer policies and reporting requirements. She refuses to involve herself in any projects outside her job description and is a poor mentor to junior employees. And Josephine is a prickly character – she does not receive feedback well, let alone critical feedback. Previous managers have attempted to raise these issues with her, without success. As a result, Josephine is left to her own devices and is a bit of a law unto herself.
You have been brought on to manage the department and you have a mandate for change from the CEO. You need your team on board. You think what Josephine has been able to get away with is unacceptable. After a few informal conversations appear to fall on deaf ears, you start a formal performance management process. You are an excellent manager and you do everything by the book. But two months later your manager calls you into her office. Josephine has submitted a bullying claim against you in the Fair Work Commission.
You know you have done everything right. You are aware that reasonable management action carried out in a reasonable manner is not bullying. But as far as Josephine is concerned, she’s not doing anything differently. She has been doing what she has always been doing, and no one has raised any issues with her previously. She is always “meeting expectations” in her performance reviews – in fact 3 years ago she was told she was exceeding them! So the problem can’t be her. It must be you, her manager. And not only does she think your scrutiny is unreasonable, she thinks it’s bullying.
Your employer instructs lawyers to defend the claim in the Commission. The Commissioner sums up pretty quickly what is going on and sends the parties to mediation. It doesn’t work, you go to a final hearing and the bullying claim is dismissed. But where to next? You know Josephine will challenge every decision you make and you can’t see how you can continue to work together. Eventually, with further assistance from your dreadfully expensive lawyers, you negotiate an exit and wind up paying out 6 months “compensation” to Josephine.
I have seen this scenario, in various shapes and sizes, innumerable times. And generally speaking, clients end up in that position for the same reason. In fact, it is the same reason that the vast majority of things end up on my desk…failure to have the difficult conversations. Failure to have the conversation early enough. Because performance and conduct issues rarely dissipate. They continue to escalate. And unfortunately the point at which someone starts to address them, is often when relationships have deteriorated so far that the only workable solution is for one of the parties to leave the workplace. And that is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is protracted, public and costly conflict or litigation.
We know why people are often so reluctant to have these conversations and to give the necessary feedback. Giving feedback can be extraordinarily difficult. And I would suggest that one of the reasons it is so difficult is that the giver has very little control over how the feedback is received.
And furthermore, receiving feedback is even more difficult than giving it.
Why is that? Not all feedback is difficult to give and receive, in fact most of us do fine with positive feedback (although some even struggle with that). But receiving negative feedback will very often trigger something in us. It is often an emotional reaction and can even be physical – your stomach starts to clench, your heart starts to pound. I am sure you have walked out of a meeting where you have received negative feedback thinking, “Oh, I wish I had said…!”. But when put on the spot, we shut down and our usual communication skills escape us.
According to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project, there are three main reactions that feedback can trigger in us which block our ability to receive it. They have called them the truth, relationship and identity triggers.
The “truth” trigger is set off by the substance of the feedback – it is somehow off, unhelpful or simply untrue. This reaction is often caused where the feedback has been poorly expressed or where the giver has used subjective labels rather than focussing on specific behaviours.
The “relationship trigger” is set off by the particular person who is giving this gift of feedback. All feedback is coloured by the relationship between the giver and the receiver. This is certainly not rocket science. But often we find ourselves unable to consider or accept feedback because of how we feel about the person giving it – “You have no credibility on this topic!”. Or memories of how we have been treated by them in the past – “After all I’ve done for you, this is how you treat me!”. So it becomes impossible to focus on the feedback and instead you focus on the person who is delivering it and how they make you feel.
Finally, the “identity trigger” is all about us. Something about the feedback has caused our identity, our sense of who we are, to come undone. We feel overwhelmed, threatened, ashamed or off balance. Once this trigger gets tripped, a nuanced discussion of our strengths and weaknesses is not on the cards. We are almost in survival mode.
If you are like me, as you read about these “triggers” a multitude of instances will spring to mind when “constructive” feedback has triggered exactly these reactions in you. Fortunately, by building awareness of these reactions, it is possible to learn ways to manage them. Which means it is possible to teach people how to more effectively receive feedback.
So, perhaps we are approaching our “performance management training” the wrong way. We can train our leaders on the best way to deliver feedback and how to have the difficult conversations – there are certainly some practical tips that managers can learn that will assist in delivering feedback effectively (the “sandwich” methodology comes to mind). But perhaps what we really need to be doing is training our managers on how to receive feedback. Because even the most skilled or persistent giver of feedback will only get so far. Ultimately it is up to the receiver to decide what they will or will not take away, consider and potentially use as an impetus for change and improvement.
If we are able to create a workplace culture where feedback, even if poorly delivered, is better received, where employees are enabled to approach feedback with curiosity and see it as a growth opportunity, then suddenly these “difficult” conversations become far easier. And you are far less likely to end up arguing your case in front of the Fair Work Commission.
 Stone, D, Heen, S., Thanks for the Feedback, Penguin Random House UK, 2015
Melissa Scadden is a Senior Associate at Justitia. On 1 July 2019, she will be promoted to partnership at the firm. To view her profile, click here.