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The Assumptions Employees Make When They Don’t Get Feedback

Feedback is a daily staple of my work as an executive coach. I am often giving direct feedback to the leaders I work with, sharing 360-degree feedback from the leader’s colleagues, and then helping them process and reflect on the feedback they receive.

One piece of feedback that the executives I coach receive over and over again from their direct reports is: “She doesn’t give enough helpful feedback.”

When I ask these direct reports about the impact this has on them, I find that, in the absence of understanding why they’re getting so little feedback, they often make up their own explanations.

Here are three of the most common stories that employees tell themselves about what their manager is thinking when they don’t get enough helpful feedback, why these stories are a problem for them (and for you), and what you can do as a manager to rewrite these stories:

Story 1: “As long as I’m not creating trouble for my manager, I’m doing fine.”

Why this is a problem: While some people are perfectly satisfied just staying out of trouble, most professionals would rather know what impact they’re having — both the good and the not-so-good. If the bar for satisfactory performance is “not a problem employee,” then your bar is way too low. And, as a result, you will likely get more of what you focus on, which means a whole bunch of “non-troublemakers” as opposed to high-performing, committed, and engaged professionals.

Furthermore, communicating this mindset (overtly or covertly) is likely to keep an employee from bringing important issues to your attention for fear that they might “create trouble” — and then lose out on the only input they’re getting from you.

What to do instead: “Not creating trouble” should become your minimum expectation, not the highest goal you set for your people. And after you change your expectation, change your mindset and your language. Let your employees know specifically what you appreciate and value when they meet or exceed expectations, and also share your perspective on what they could do differently when they fall short. Also let them know what constitutes unacceptable “trouble” (like making inappropriate remarks, repeatedly showing up late, poor follow-through on tasks) vs. acceptable “trouble” (such as difficulty obtaining a resource, not knowing how to do something, or needing a personal accommodation).

Story 2“My manager doesn’t think I can take feedback well.”

Why this is a problem: Giving feedback that helps people achieve better business results is part of a manager’s job. It’s also her job to create a climate of psychological safety — which is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake — for a direct report to receive feedback well.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

If you’re not giving feedback because you actually fear that it won’t be well-received, then you’re falling short on three counts: first, you’re not helping your direct report to have more impact (which also means, by extension, that you’re not supporting her to better help the team, the clients, and the organization). Second, you’re not modeling accountable behavior if you skip giving feedback because you fear how it will land. And third, you may be contributing to a lack of psychological safety by failing to create the opportunity for your direct report to experience support rather than retribution.

What to do instead: Separate out the story from the facts of how your direct report receives feedback. If you aren’t giving regular feedback because you assume or fear that your colleague won’t receive it well, ask yourself, “What concrete, observable evidence am I basing that assumption on?” If the list includes behaviors like, “He walks out of meetings abruptly when he hears something he doesn’t agree with,” or “She often asks, ‘Am I going to get fired for this?’ when I bring a client concern to her attention,” then you may be justified in your concerns. In my article,“When Your Employee Doesn’t Take Feedback,” I suggest that managers start giving feedback on how the employee receives feedback (or in this case, how you think he or she is likely to receive feedback based on similar situations).

And if it turns out that you don’t have compelling evidence to support your belief that he or she won’t receive it well, then you need to, as Nike suggests, “Just do it.” Give your employees the feedback they crave.

 

Story 3: “My manager doesn’t think I can change.”

Why this is a problem: If you actually believe that your employee cannot change, you will not offer him the resources or opportunities to do so. This will set you up to be right, but at the expense of your employee’s current success, and future career trajectory. As Chris Miller, a program director at UNC Executive Development, writes in his white paper, “Expectations Create Outcomes: Growth Mindsets in Organizations”: “managers with fixed mindsets often fail to recognize positive changes in employee performance. They are also less likely to coach employees about how to improve performance or to offer constructive feedback…This leads to a loss of talent in organizations.”

What do to instead: Adopt a growth mindset, for your employee and for yourself. As Miller writes, “Employees with growth mindsets welcome challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle, which makes them more successful learners and better contributors to their organizations than employees with fixed mindsets (Briceno, 2015).”  If you hold a growth mindset for your employee, you will give more feedback because you believe she will welcome — and rise to — the challenge. And if you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback because you trust that you will welcome the challenge.

As Dr. Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” By giving more helpful feedback, you’ll be providing your employees with the data they need to do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t, and with fewer opportunities to make up their own stories.


Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

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Our Assumptions About Old and Young Workers Are Wrong

It is almost second nature to create stereotypes of people based on age. If someone is in their twenties then they must be technologically adept, obsessed with keeping fit, prepared to change jobs frequently whilst obviously searching for meaningful work. Those in their sixties and seventies must be less interested in work and are probably exhausted and anticipating the leisure time offered by a long retirement.

These are seductive and easy to understand behavioral labels. But are these assumptions either real or helpful? Might they obscure even more important similarities?

We believe this is a crucial question to ask right now as working lives – shaped by technological innovations and extended by growing longevity – are undergoing profound transformations. To understand how people are responding to this transformation in their working lives, we developed a survey completed by more than 10,000 people from across the world aged 24 to 80.

We found far fewer differences between the age groups than we might have imagined. In fact, many of the traits and desires commonly attributed to younger people are shared by the whole workforce. Why might this be the case?

One reason is that we are simply living longer. This means we’re also working longer, and working differently.

For our recent book The 100 Year Life we calculated how long people will work. Whilst we cannot be precise, it is clear that in order to finance retirement many people currently in their fifties will work into their seventies; whilst those in their twenties could well be working into their eighties. That means that inevitably people of very different ages are increasingly working together.

This long working life, coupled with profound technological changes, dismantles the traditional three-stage life of full-time education, full-time work, and full-time retirement. In its place is coming – for all employees regardless of their age – a multi-stage life that blends education, exploration, and learning, as well as corporate jobs, freelance gigs, and time spent out of the workforce. Inevitably the variety of these stages and their possible sequencing will result in both greater variety within age cohorts, whilst also providing opportunities for different ages to engage in similar activities. In other words, work activities will become increasingly “age agnostic” and these age stereotypes will look increasingly outdated.

Right now people of every age are becoming increasingly aware of the transformation of their working life. They are reinvesting in their skills, looking after their health and thinking about options, transitions and career switches that weren’t a reality for previous generations. Viewed in this light, there is less discontinuity between different ages – and instead a shared, and growing interest in the tools to cope with a longer working life in an age of profound technological disruption.

Our survey highlighted these commonalities. While there may be some selection bias — the 10,000 people who completed our survey online are already interested in the topic of life and work changes — their experiences and attitudes highlight how misleading simple age related stereotypes can be. Consider six fairly common age-based assumptions: the young invest most in new skills, they are most positive and excited about their work, and they work hardest to keep fit; the old are more exhausted, keen to slow down, and less likely to explore. The people in our study overturned these stereotypes.

  1. It is not just the young who are investing in new skills. We asked people whether they felt their skills and knowledge had plateaued, and whether they had recently made an investment in their skills. After the age of 30 many people are concerned about plateauing skills. Indeed there is no difference between those in their 30s, 40s or 60s – almost two-thirds worried that their skills and knowledge were not keeping up with changing work demands. What is fascinating is how many people were countering this by actively investing in their skills. Certainly a higher proportion of those aged 18-30 (91%) and 31-45 (72%) felt they were investing in new skills but after the age of 45 almost 60% of all ages said they were actively investing. In other words, the majority of people keep maintaining skills and this does not significantly decline with age.
  1. It is not just the young who are positive and excited by their work. This is a crucial attitude as working lives elongate. If indeed being positive and excited about work declines sharply with age, then long working lives will become a terrible burden for the older. What was striking was that whatever their age, those feeling positive about their work was a constant at just over 50%. Just as striking is the proportion of people of all ages who don’t feel positive about their work.
  1. Older people are working harder to keep fit. We know that vitality is central to a long productive life and it is easy to imagine that it’s only the young who really care about their fitness. Yet we discovered that it is the older who are working hardest to try to keep fit. About half of those under 45 actively try to keep fit, rising continuously across the ages with a peak of 71% for those aged over 70.
  1. Older people are not more exhausted. One of the reasons corporations often prefer the young to the old is the assumption that with age comes exhaustion at work and therefore a lowering of productivity. We found no evidence of this age related exhaustion. In fact, more people under the age of 45 (43%) said they were exhausted than those over 45 (35%) – the least exhausted are those over 60.
  1. Older people don’t want to slow down. The stereotype is that as people age they want to slow down and are looking forward to retiring. We found this not to be the case. More than half of those aged 46 to 60 want to slow down, whilst only 39% of the people over 60 and less than 20% of the people over 70 say they want to slow down.
  1. Exploring is not just for the young. When you think about “gap years” you probably think about 20-year-olds taking time out after full-time education. But why assume that it is only the young who want to take time out to explore and learn more about themselves and their world? Crucially, we found no significant age difference in people’s excitement about exploring their options.

The six assumptions we have explored here are probably just aspects of a much bigger tapestry of assumptions about the young and old that are spurious, wrong, even damaging. We use the word damaging with care. When corporations believe that older workers invest less in their knowledge, are less excited by their work and exploring their world, and are on a path to physical decline and exhaustion, they make the wrong decisions about whom to select, promote and develop, and whom to retire.

There are undoubtedly some differences across the age groups that are important in the workplace. However, the over-simplicity of age and generational labels decreases our understanding of individuality; it masks the commonality of the task we are all facing as we strive to achieve a productive and enriching longer working career; and is in deep conflict with the imperative to develop age-agnostic working practices.

As every one of us is faced with living and working longer it is absolutely crucial that, whatever our age, we face up to and question unfounded assumptions and stereotypes about ourselves and about others. Only then can we create workplaces where people are accepted for themselves.

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2016/11/our-assumptions-about-old-and-young-workers-are-wrong?referral=00202&cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-weekly_hotlist-_-hotlist_date&utm_source=newsletter_weekly_hotlist&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=hotlist_date&spMailingID=15946528&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=903958289&spReportId=OTAzOTU4Mjg5S0


Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School where she teaches an elective on the Future of Work and directs an executive program on Human Resource Strategy. Lynda is a fellow of the World Economic Forum, is ranked by Business Thinkers in the top 15 in the world, and was named the best teacher at London Business School in 2015. Her most recent book is The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, co-authored with Andrew Scott.


Andrew Scott is Professor of Economics at London Business School and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University and the Centre for Economic Policy Research. He has served as an advisor on macroeconomics to a range of governments and central banks and was Non-Executive Director on the UK’s Financial Services Authority. He is the co-author, with Linda Scott, of The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity.


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