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Constructive Feedback

Constructive Feedback That Changes Behavior

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project managers and team leaders will always have some poor performing team members. Poor performance can encompass assignments that are not what you expect regarding quality, timeliness or completeness. Constructive feedback is an effective tool for changing the behavior of poor performers. It is also useful to give constructive feedback to team members whose assignments meet all the requirements and your expectations. It can reward great performers and encourage them to keep up (or even improve) their good work.  Leading Teams Main Page

If your feedback is destructive, the team member will repeat their poor performance and your working relationship with that person will be adversely affected.  Even worse, your negative actions could cause other team members to perform less well. You need to know the best way to deal with poor performance. And that requires having a procedure to follow and using constructive feedback.

Constructive Feedback: A Typical Situation

Here is a typical situation you might face:

At the end of a long day, you received a phone call from a very influential stakeholder. She complained that her department did not receive the instructions that Pat (a member of your team) was supposed to give them last week.  She went on to explain that they need those instructions to be able to use the deliverable your team has produced.  As a result, the first phase of the implementation was going to be at least a week late, maybe more.  You wanted to ask why she waited a week to tell you. Instead, you apologized to the stakeholder, verified that you understood the omission, and hung up.   Leadership and Team Assignments

As you dialed Pat’s extension, one hand gripped the phone and you clenched the other into a fist. That idiot Pat had cost you at least a week’s delay by screwing up and not giving the stakeholder the instructions she needed.  This was the last straw with Pat.  All the other team members closed out their tasks the right way.  Pat was lazy and careless and didn’t give a rip about the project. Well, today Pat was going to receive a harsh lesson about doing the job right.

This project manager is going to have a conversation with a poor performing team member when they have a lot of anger and frustration built up. They’re ready to say things that will make the team member angry. This conversation will probably hurt their working relationship. Effective Feedback

The phone rang and rang until you realized Pat had gone home for the weekend.  

That was actually lucky.  The PM now has time to calm down and handle the situation the right way when they talk to Pat on Monday. Team building

Constructive Feedback: Measuring Success 

Let’s first talk about what successful feedback is. Is it making Pat feel guilty and embarrassed about letting the project team down? Is it making Pat promise to never do this again? Is it making Pat frightened of the punishments you may impose?

Success is none of those things. Success from giving constructive feedback is changing Pat’s behavior so he remembers to deliver instructions to the stakeholders when a task requires it.  Success is also changing Pat’s behavior so he finishes one task before moving on to the next.  Additionally, you’d like your relationship with Pat to be a good one. In a good relationship, Pat feels an obligation to meet your expectations.

With those constructive feedback measures of success in mind, let’s start over and do the advanced preparation necessary to correctly give constructive feedback. First, dealing with a poor performer is never the opportunity to vent your own frustration. You need to be calm and in control.  You must design and execute your plan for the session, not ad lib it.

Constructive Feedback: Timing 

The need to control your anger often conflicts with the need to immediately address the poor performance.  In the situation above, it was lucky Pat had left the office because it allowed the PM time to cool down.  On the other hand, letting too much time pass before the constructive feedback session is bad because it reduces the impact of what you say.

You could wait two more days until Monday or try to meet with the team member over the weekend.  Your organization’s culture should affect your decision on how reasonable it is to ask for a weekend meeting.  A good middle ground is to send the employee an email today, asking for a meeting first thing Monday morning.

Constructive Feedback: The Medium You Useconstructive feedback

One other consideration is what medium you will use for the constructive feedback exchange.  Ideally, you want a face-to-face meeting, in-person and private; just the two of you.  In this day of cubicles and virtual teams, private meetings can be a luxury but you should try to make it happen.

Conducting the constructive feedback session in writing via a memo or email is very stiff and legalistic.  Lawyers like performance warnings to be documented.  But written communication can set the wrong tone for building the kind of relationship you want with the team member. A phone call is less formal but the downside is the difficulty in packaging your message with the correct body language and facial expressions. Also, it’s difficult for you to “read” the team member’s reactions when words and tone of voice are the only feedback you get over the phone.  A video meeting over the internet improves that situation but you need to ensure that both sides of the conversation are private.

In the example situation with Pat, you might ask for the meeting on Monday and specify a place and time that will be private.  You might also add that you won’t be available for email discussions this weekend; you want to talk on Monday.  Hopefully, that decreases the odds of an email exchange.

Constructive Feedback: Content and Sequence 

The last element of constructive feedback is planning the information you’ll deliver and the sequence in which you’ll deliver it.  It’s a mistake to assume you know the truth about what really happened, who was accountable and what behavior Pat exhibited.  Starting off with an incorrect version of what happened can bring the process to a halt.

You have only the stakeholder’s view of the situation. You need to start with an open-minded inquiry into Pat’s side of the story.  You don’t want to assume that Pat made the error. There are many other possible explanations for what the stakeholder told you. So the first step in constructive feedback is to tell Pat about the stakeholder’s phone call. Then ask Pat what happened and get his side of the story.

This allows you to avoid accusing Pat of wrong doing before you know if Pat actually did something wrong. Too many project managers start these sessions with words that assume the guilt of the team member. That makes the PM look judgmental, biased and unfair in the team member’s eyes. PMs do that when they enter the meeting angry.  So always start the conversation without prejudgment and let the team member tell their side of the story.

If Pat says, “I put the instructions on the stakeholder’s desk a week ago,” you can say something like, “I didn’t think you’d make that kind of mistake.” Then you can start a discussion about dealing with the one week delay in the implementation.

But if Pat agrees that he didn’t deliver the instructions to the stakeholder, you go on to step two in the constructive feedback process. That is accountability verification.

Constructive Feedback: Accountability Verification 

The second step in the constructive feedback information flow is to verify that Pat was responsible for creating and delivering the user instructions.  The purpose of this step is to compare Pat’s actual behavior to what it should have been.  So you ask him who was accountable for giving the instructions to the stakeholder.

If Pat agrees that the instructions were his accountability, you can talk about the importance of closing out tasks completely. And discuss the damage that failure to do so caused in this specific situation.  This part of the discussion is limited to Pat’s actual behavior versus his accountability.  Don’t praise other team members who close out tasks completely.  The only reference outside of this current situation might be to mention how well Pat did on the last task he closed out correctly.

Why should you follow all these steps?  If you are going to change the behavior, Pat needs to perceive that the criticism was earned and fair and that his behavior was wrong.  That will bring about the behavior change and build your working relationship.

Constructive Feedback: Reinforcement 

Dealing with Pat’s performance is not over.  You need to complement Pat when he correctly closes out his next task. That will complete the constructive feedback cycle.

Constructive Feedback: Summary

Constructive feedback on a team member’s poor performance can yield big benefits for the project manager and team member. The project manager must control their anger and the impulse to accuse or punish. Constructive feedback includes learning the facts, verifying accountability and reinforcing the team member’s improved behavior.

You can practice using these techniques in our private, online courses with simulations. You will practice dealing with poor performing employees in live, private meetings with your instructor playing the team member role. You will learn how to successfully plan and deliver constructive feedback and think on your feet during these meetings.

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