Feedback Before Firing

Summary: If someone on your project team isn't working up to par, it might take more than a simple showing of your disapproval to put him on the right track. Johanna Rothman suggests trying specific and useful feedback—show your employees the light before you show them the door.

Margaret, a manager, was concerned about one of her employees, Chad. She met with her manager, Peter, to discuss the problem.

“Chad just isn't cutting it,” Margaret said. “He’s not finishing anything on time, and what he does finish is full of defects. His attitude is so bad that no one wants to work with him. I guess I'll have to let him go.”

“I hate to see you do that. He’s been productive up until the last couple of months,” Peter said. “Have you told Chad about these problems?”

“Well, I told him I was disappointed with his work.”

“But have you given him specific feedback?”

“Telling him I'm disappointed isn't specific?” Margaret asked, puzzled.

Peter paused for a moment and replied, “Saying you're disappointed is not useful feedback. If I told you I was disappointed in your management of Chad, you wouldn't know what I was disappointed about. I'd create a parentchild dynamic, instead of a collegial relationship between adults at work. I'd reduce your trust in me because I'd be treating you more like a child than an adult. That dynamic would persist even after I give you specific examples.

“You'll need to give Chad specific and recent examples of the work or behavior you want to change. Are you going to tell him what to do, or are you willing to solve the problems jointly?”

“We'll work out the answers together,” replied Margaret.

“Your big challenge is to construct the feedback so that Chad can hear it. Feel free to ask me for help,” said Peter.

Margaret had three issues to discuss with Chad: lateness of his deliverables defects in his deliverables, and his attitude. She had specific instances of Chad’s late deliverables and his defects, but she needed to identify the specific behaviors he had exhibited that led her to conclude that he had a bad attitude.

Margaret constructed the feedback message by first creating an opening to talk. Next, she would describe the behavior or results she had seen, stating the impact in ways that affected her personally. Finally, she would make a request for change.

Since Margaret hadn't been giving Chad feedback regularly, she needed to be very careful about creating an opening. When she was ready to talk to Chad, she stopped by his office and said, “Chad, I'd like to have a conversation about our working relationship. Are you available this Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.?”

Chad replied, “Sure, 1:30 Wednesday is great.”

Margaret prepared talking points. By writing a script, she wouldn't be flustered when it was time to talk to Chad. She wouldn't actually use the script when speaking with him, but would practice it beforehand so she would know what to say.

She was sure the meeting would differ from the script, but the script would help her to identify the issues she wanted to address and ways to phrase the feedback.

On Wednesday afternoon, Chad arrived in Margaret’s office. He sat, put down his notebook, and said, “Margaret, I'm so glad we have this chance to talk. I've been really unhappy here the last couple of months. I really dislike this work. When can I finish this and move to that other project?”

Though surprised by the meeting’s early turn, Margaret finally realized what had been happening for Chad. Because he disliked the work, he was dragging his feet and not performing up to his usual standards.

She adjusted her original script and focused on the problem at hand.

“I'm really glad you told me this,” she said. “I wasn't aware of your dissatisfaction, but I have noticed that your work hasn't been up to its usual standards— your last three deliverables were late, and the testers found more than twenty defects in your code over the past couple of weeks. When your work is late and has more defects— and I don't know about it in advance—I can't plan the project work very well. Were you aware of these problems?”

“Yeah, I'm having trouble staying focused,” Chad said. “I really hate this work.”

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“You're always so busy, and you kept canceling our one-on-ones, so I thought you didn't want to talk to me.”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Thank you for telling me. I didn't realize you'd take that message away from my canceling our one-on-ones. I've been plowed under the last couple of months. But let’s get back to you. I still need you to finish this project work for the next month. Can you?”

“As long as we timebox it, I can stay more focused and finish it. I was thinking I'd ask Jonathan and Kim for help with review. If I know someone’s going to read my code, I tend to do a better job,” Chad said. “But when can I move to the other project? It’s just what I like to do.”

“I can't move you until this work is complete. I need you to do the best job you can on your current project and stay focused. But maybe I can help by meeting with you more regularly. Do you want to meet more often than once a week?”

“How about if we meet twice next week? You can keep me on the straight and narrow while I muddle through this piece. Then we can move back to once a week.”

Margaret smiled and felt more relaxed. “Great, you've got a deal,” she said. “Now, let’s talk about another problem. In meetings I've seen you fight with people about things I didn't think you even cared about. I was quite surprised you called Brian brain-dead. What’s up with that?”

“I think Brian’s design is brain-dead,” Chad said. “What else am I supposed to say?”

“But what you said was ‘You're completely wrong. Only a brain-dead idiot would design like that.’ The team looks up to Brian. When you say things like that, they assume you're the brain-dead one.”

“Oh,” Chad said. “I hadn't thought of that.”

“Why don't you reconsider how you describe your concerns? How about saying something like, ‘I have a concern with that design because it affects my work.’”

“Oh, like anyone will hear that,” Chad said and snorted.

“Sure they will. Anyway, you need to try something. I can see the team’s reactions to you, and they're not good.”

Chad and Margaret met regularly for the next few weeks. In the end, Chad returned to being the dependable developer Margaret had once known. He mended his relationships with the other team members and strengthened his working relationship with Margaret.

Margaret, in turn, gained insight about the kind of work Chad would enjoy and do well. Feedback, not firing, was the answer.


© 2006 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Better Software.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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