Feedback That Changes Behavior

 

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Feedback is not just sharing your evaluation of a team member’s work. An important part of a leader’s job is setting clear expectations and norms of behavior. These help the team members work together effectively and efficiently. You, as the leader, must set and enforce these expectations and norms of behavior. You reinforce positive behavior and change negative behavior by giving feedback to team members.    Leading Teams Main Page

Feedback in the form of constructive criticism is one way to change a team member’s bad behavior. It is best to do this in private but occasionally it can be in public. It has the most impact early in the life of a team. During the “forming” and “norming” phases of team development, team members are most sensitive to your efforts to steer their behavior. A small disappointed frown from you when one team member criticizes another is often sufficient to stop that behavior. Later on, it is harder for you to change or stop undesirable behaviors. That’s because they have become ingrained.  It is important to avoid punishing people with your criticism. Punishment doesn’t change how people behave and it can produce negative results.

Let’s look at the right and wrong way to handle several feedback situations.

Feedback Situation #1: Team Member is Late For a Meeting

You had e-mailed the project team the agenda for a 30 minute planning meeting.  The group assembled several minutes early, except for one team member.  There was informal and light–hearted conversation since most of the team members knew each other.  Then you started the meeting at the appointed time.  After 15 minutes, the missing team member arrived and made a couple of humorous comments as he took his seat.

There are two parts to getting the change in behavior you want.  The most important part is to set the standard for timeliness. It may sound silly that you need to tell professionals to be on time for meetings.  However, being late for meetings might be OK on some teams. You must make your expectation and the standard clear because it may differ from the norms they have on other teams. Let’s look at the ineffective and effective ways to handle the first part. Team building

Ineffective Feedback: Setting Standards

“By being late you have wasted all of our time. That is unprofessional and inconsiderate. If you do that again, you and I are going to have trouble.”

You are trying to punish the late arrival and this threat is an overreaction.  It only makes you look silly. There is a better way to define what you expect from all the team members.

Effective Feedback: Setting Standards

“When people are late for meetings I can respond two ways.  I can interrupt the meeting to let them catch up. But this wastes everyone else’s time. Or I can let the late arrival figure things out as we move on.  Those are both bad choices. So please, let’s all be on time for meetings.”

The next part of the criticism is changing his behavior, not punishing him. So you should talk to him in private and give effective criticism. Two approaches to that next conversation with the late team member are below.

feedback

Ineffective Feedback: Giving Criticism

“I find that people who are late also do sloppy work and are very unprofessional.”

Stating stereotypes of people who are late as being sloppy and unprofessional is insulting. It may actually get in the way of changing the person’s behavior. You need to focus only on the behavior you want, not on personality traits.

Effective FeedbackGiving Criticism

We are all too busy to have our time wasted by someone who is late.  Please help me enforce the standard that everyone arrives on time.  Thank you.”

There is no personal criticism in this feedback. There is no implication that the person who arrived late is a bad person.  This is a clear comparison of the behavior you want, compared to what you got.  The request for their help is a nice touch to make the criticism more effective.

Feedback Situation #2: Functional Turf Wars

As you continued to work with the team, you noticed sharp remarks exchanged between the team members from Marketing and Operations. The barbs seemed to focus on a previous, failed project.  Each side was implying that the other was to blame for the project failure.  You quickly decide you have to do two things. First, you have to define the norm and the kind of behavior you want from the team.  Second, you need to effectively criticize the barbs being made by each side to make clear how their behavior deviates from what you want.

Ineffective Feedback: Defining Norms of Behavior

“I don’t want to hear any more of these inter-departmental turf wars.  It’s stupid and completely unprofessional.”

That statement is publicly criticizing certain people on a personal level. It produces resentment, not better behavior.

Effective Feedback: Defining Norms of Behavior

“Let’s focus on the future and the brilliant things we will deliver as a team; not on failed projects from the past.”

Next you need to speak privately to the people involved about how their comments differ from the behavior you want. Let’s look at the effective and ineffective ways to do that.

Ineffective Feedback: Past Grudges 

“You can dislike the people from (pick a department name) on your own time. On my project, you have to work with them. So get used to cooperating with each other.”

Effective FeedbackPast Grudges 

“Everyone will have a separate, measured accountability on this project. And we will know if someone is not pulling their weight or trying to shift work off to other departments.  So let’s not re-fight old wars. Let’s focus on making this project a success.”

Feedback Situation #3: Not Meeting Assignment Requirements

You cannot wait for team members to deliver bad assignments to define your expectations. You must do it upfront during the initial project planning phase. Leadership and Team Assignments

Ineffective Feedback: Meeting Expectations

“Top management is watching this project very closely and they will know very quickly if someone is not doing a good job on their assignments.  So don’t let bad work on this project ruin your career.”

This is the perfect way to have people start working on their excuses for avoiding blame. They’ll do this even before they start work on their tasks.  There is a better way to define your expectations.

Effective Feedback: Meeting Expectations

“The most important part of my job as project manager is to make sure you understand exactly what is expected of you. That’s why we are developing a work package that defines what each of you must do to succeed.  The work package describes the deliverable you are responsible for producing. That deliverable is defined with a metric and the standards you must meet. The work package also lists all the documentation that you must produce. If you produce what’s in the work package, your assignment will be a success.  If people in the organization want something that is missing from your work package, that is my fault. It’s not yours.”

As you execute the plan, there may be assignments that fall short of the expectation defined in the work package. Let’s look at the wrong and the right ways to handle that situation.

Ineffective Feedback: Falling Short of Expectations

“You have not given me what I asked for because you didn’t listen.  This is all wrong due to your poor work.”

This is too vague and does not tell the team member what they did wrong.  It also heaps a lot of personal accusations on them. This will not change their behavior for the better.

Effective Feedback: Falling Short of Expectations

“I guess the work package I wrote was not clear.  I would like you to complete the deliverable with this new, better defined work package.”

Taking some of the blame, whether deserved or not, will make the criticism more acceptable to the team member. And, with the focus on the future, it may improve their attention to detail going forward.

Effective Feedback Summary

It’s easy to handle situations that involve good news, like finishing early and under budget. But it’s challenging to manage situations when the project that is late and over budget due to team members’ poor performance. You need to focus on changing their behavior, not punishing them. You do this with effective feedback delivered in private. It’s easy to lose sight of how your own behavior and emotions can get in the way of building a high-performing project team.  To master skills for giving effective feedback, you need to practice handling these situations the right way.

You can learn and practice these skills in our private, online Project Management Basics course. You will work individually with an expert PM on a realistic project case study. You have as many e-mails, phone calls and live video conferences as you need.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on Amazon.com