The Cornerstone for Healthy Employee Relations

Published September 2012

Regardless of whether you’re an upper level manager or a front line supervisor, one of your primary responsibilities to your employees is to ensure that they are employable. I want to emphasize employable, not employed. Unfortunately, the world occasionally throws curve balls in terms of recessions and market swings which require workforce reductions in order for the organization to survive.

No doubt layoffs are among the most difficult tasks facing any leader. But if you’ve done a good job of developing your employees, you can at least part with the satisfaction of being reasonably assured that they’ll land on their feet, hopefully with an even better job than the one they’re leaving. And the key to developing employees is consistently providing good and honest feedback.

So when was the last time that you provided really honest feedback to each of the employees reporting to you? I’m not talking about the annual form-driven rite called the performance appraisal. Rather, I’m referring to feedback the employee found useful in assessing their current status and future potential within the organization.

Hmm … I was afraid of that.

OK, so let’s start with the obvious. This isn’t the easiest part of your job. Oh sure, you can hand out compliments until the cows come home. But what about those times when you’re illuminating an employee’s blind spot?

Research conducted by Gallup clearly demonstrates a strong relationship between employees that classify themselves as engaged and supervisory feedback. The study concluded that supervisors with a focus on strengths resulted in the highest incidence rate (61%) of engaged employees. Employees who responded that their supervisor focused on weaknesses called themselves engaged at a lower rate (45%). Still, it was dramatically higher than the 2% of employees who called themselves engaged and claimed that their supervisor ignored them, with a focus on neither strengths nor weaknesses.

So while even bad news is better (much better, in fact) than no news, the best feedback is timely, sincere, well-intentioned and balanced. Scheduling regular one-on-one discussions with each of your employees creates the impending events needed to ensure that feedback occurs as needed, preventing mole hills from escalating into mountains.

I’ve found that a useful tool for developing a balanced feedback strategy is the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Analysis often used for evaluating an organization during strategic planning.

Let’s start with strengths:

  • On what types of jobs does the employee consistently deliver solid results?
  • What recent situation was particularly well-handled?
  • What kinds of work does the employee visibly enjoy?

These should be based on observed behaviors rather than perceptions or hearsay. I typically do not relate feedback from others directly, but rather use it to increase my own sensitivity to the issue to determine if feedback is warranted. This allows me to “own” the feedback.

Weaknesses, like strengths, are primarily backwards-looking:

  • With what types of tasks does the employee often struggle?
  • What recent situation could have been handled better?
  • What kinds of work does the employee avoid or appear to not enjoy?

Opportunities are generally forward-looking and involve potentially good changes within the world or the organization:

  • What new positions are likely to open up?
  • Are new skills needed due to changes in the business or in technology?
  • Does an upcoming event offer a chance to try something new?

Threats also tend to be forward-looking, but deal with potentially damaging trends:

  • Is the current position at risk due to market or funding trends?
  • Are changes in business needs or technology replacing the employee’s skills?
  • Is a strong competitor emerging?

Getting to know your employees first as unique and valuable people and providing balanced feedback over time will help when the required message is tougher. This still doesn’t make it easy, but easier.

Take heart, this is the tough part of managing. But like most things in life, there is a risk and reward relationship. Watching an employee positively respond to your coaching or return to thank you following a new job, either within or outside of the organization, is as good as it gets.

Back to the Working Great! archives

View the PDF version:

Check out the Working Great! archives for columns on other pertinent business issues

Copyright 2012 Brimeyer LLC. All Rights Reserved.