By Dan Gephart, October 6, 2020

Gourds, pumpkin spice, a slight nip in the air, falling leaves. It’s all a reminder for many supervisors that it’s time to start working on those end-of-the-year performance reviews. Many federal employees will be getting feedback on their performance for the first time since their last review. And that, FELTG Nation, is inexcusable.

Whether it’s anxiety, frustration, or confusion, you cannot afford to avoid regular, honest performance-related discussions with your employees any longer. Providing feedback effectively is a skill — one that every supervisor can and should develop.

FELTG Instructor Dr. Anthony MarcheseFELTG Instructor Anthony Marchese will present The Performance Equation: Providing Feedback That Makes a Difference on October 28 from 12:30 – 4 pm ET. I caught up with Tony, who besides teaching for FELTG is a consultant, author and former academic dean, to talk about performance feedback.

DG: Why is feedback so important?

AM: Feedback is essential for growth. It is embedded in some of our earliest experiences. It helps provide a map of meaning to help direc

t us toward desirable behavior. In other words, it helps us to understand where we are in relationship to where we could or should be. It helps reinforce positive behavior and offers insights into where we may need to adjust behavior that is incongruous with expectations.

DG: Does it always have to be formal?

AM: Definitely not! However, before we discuss delivery methods, we need to ensure that it is happening. In a recent study, Gallup reported that 50 percent of surveyed employees (from a variety of sectors) did not know what their managers expected of them on a daily basis. Forty-seven percent of respondents indicated that they receive feedback only a few times a year or less. If an employee consistently possesses that level of uncertainty further reinforced by an absence of performance conversations, it is unlikely that they will receive a positive performance review. It is a near impossibility that they will exceed expectations. Consider how the current pandemic may have further exacerbated ambiguity, uncertainty, and the frequency of performance conversations. We must do better.

DG: Speaking of the pandemic, a majority of federal employees are working from home now. What are some pitfalls for supervisors to avoid when providing feedback remotely?

AM: Try to avoid negative surprises. Let your employee know in advance what you’d like to discuss. Provide specific, self-introspective questions to help them prepare for the conversation by carefully considering their performance and be ready to discuss what to continue, discontinue, and how to do it. Also:

  • Try to avoid using a virtual feedback conversation to test out a new, unfamiliar technology. Video is always better. Make sure that you and your employee know how to use it. Remember, nonverbal cues are incredibly important and can be easily
  • missed when not meeting face-to-face or using video. Let them see you. Be sure to see them.
  • Try to make the feedback session an active, brainstorming experience. Rather than spending the time “telling,” consider a structure that encourages equal participation, reflection, and problem-solving. This energy helps mitigate the Zoom fatigue plaguing so many right now and also positions the supervisor as a collaborative partner in helping your employee be at their best.

DG: How do you provide feedback to essential workers who are so busy they don’t have time for a feedback session?

AM: If a supervisor is too busy to provide feedback, he or she is too busy to be a supervisor.

More than ever, it is important that each employee feels connected to her or his supervisor. In a world filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and exhaustion, supervisors who choose not to take the time to provide feedback perpetuate an already difficult situation.

Feedback can come in many forms. It is not limited to a 60-minute, sit-down session in an office. It can occur during a weekly one-on-one. It can occur via e-mail following a deliverable. It can be offered by colleagues (a 360 perspective is important). Right now is a great time to rethink how we provide feedback. For example, rather than a supervisor leading a session during which they “tell” their employee how they did, they may want to consider positioning the meeting as an inquiry opportunity. This helps promote individual ownership for performance. Supervisors should be curious. Ask questions of their employees like: How did you think the planning session went? What worked well? What would you change? Here is what I observed. What can we do together next time to ensure whatever a successful outcome would be?

Since most work-related communication has been interrupted/impacted by the pandemic, supervisors may want to reconsider how they leverage their one-on-ones, team meetings, and emails.

DG: What is the one thing every supervisor could do immediately to improve feedback?

AM: The most important thing is simply to do it. Don’t contribute to the 50 percent of employees who are unclear about what they should be doing. Here are a few other ideas to consider:

  • Conduct a self-assessment. Ask yourself: Do my employees know what I expect of them? How am I so sure?
  • Conduct a team assessment: Ask your employees (individually): Do you feel like you have what you need from me to perform your job well? What can I do/provide to ensure that you have what you need? What should I do more of/less of?
  • Performance feedback needs to consider both the “what” and the “how”. Many supervisors assume that once they provide feedback (especially constructive), their employees will know precisely how to change. This is often a false assumption. When providing feedback, discuss with your employee a strategy (with identified goals, resources, timelines, and accountability) to help support their efforts.

If you’d like to bring Dr. Marchese to your agency for training on feedback, communication or any leadership-related topic, email [email protected].

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