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Saturday, March 14, 2009

receiving critical feedback

A reader writes:

I have a really messed up situation at work. Yesterday, I found a paper in the photocopier (which is in a public place). It was on the department director's letterhead (I report to the associate director). It was a handwritten list of errors I have made (relatively small and inconsequential), or things that annoy her about me. Among them are small errors from July 2008, my 6-month in advance request to use my vacation time + sick family leave to take care of a sick aunt. NONE of these have ever been brought to my attention as problems. I have a feeling the list was intended for my supervisor to put on my evaluation.

After finding the list, I brought it to my supervisor. He had a short meeting with the director and now we all have a meeting together on Monday. He is not one to support his employees, and rarely contradicts the director.

Should I request that an HR person be there? I feel like this is harassment. Am I being too sensitive?

My advice: Go and listen with an open mind.

It's normal to feel upset and defensive in this situation. Resist that impulse as much as you can. It will not do you any good, and it may escalate the situation.

The director seems to want to talk to you about things she is concerned about. It's almost beside the point whether you think these are small, inconsequential things or not, because she doesn't, and she's someone who you're going to need to satisfy in order to work there happily. The absolute worst thing you can do in this situation is be angry or defensive. Rather you need to listen to what her concerns are and figure out what you need to be doing differently.

Really, there are two possibilities here: (1) your director is being irrational, or (2) she's being reasonable. Either way, you need to hear what it would take to make her happy with your performance. If you hear her out and decide she's being irrational, nothing says you have to stay in that job forever. But you're still better off knowing where she's coming from.

Do the following:

* Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input. Maybe she has a reasonable point, which you'll never pick up on if you're focused on how to defend yourself.

* Use responses that indicate you're open to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, "I'm really glad you're telling me this. I didn't realize that this has been an issue, and I'm grateful to know" can dramatically change the nature of the meeting -- diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.

* It's fine to present your side, of course, but do it in a non-defensive, unemotional way. For instance, you might say, "You're right that I didn't focus a lot of that project. I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?" That last sentence makes you come across as open and non-adversarial.

* Try your best to be genuinely glad to get the feedback. It's far better to be made aware of concerns your boss has than to be blindsided by them one day when it's too late. Repeat as needed: "I hadn't realized it was coming across that way, so I'm glad to know."

* Know that it's not the end of the world to get critical feedback. I can't tell you how many meetings I've had where I've been the one talking to an employee about things I wanted them to do differently -- and only a very, very small percentage of those ended up with the employee losing their job. So don't freak out. Go, listen, be receptive, and try not to let your emotions get in the way.

By the way, after the meeting, talk to your immediate boss (the associate director) at some point on his own and let him know that you value feedback and ask if he'd bring you concerns directly in the future. It's possible that he shared these concerns himself all along and just isn't a good manager so didn't bring them up with you. That's bad -- you want a boss who will give you feedback as concerns arise so that you're not hit with them months later. Tell him you would welcome more immediate feedback in the future so things don't build up.

I think this will be okay. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic response - very rational, thoughtful and effective. I'm not sure how the meeting will go, but I will use these ideas and try not to be defensive. Thank you for responding in such a quick and detailed manner. I love your blog, and always find your views insightful.

rosezilla said...

Ugh, I hate to be the voice of paranoia here, but...

I had a PT job recently, and I noticed that there were WAY too many people on every shift I worked, plus my shifty manager asked me about my availability about 3 times. Did they call me in and say "hey, we have too many people, we have to let you go?" Um, no. They called me in and told me that wednesday morning (I never worked weekdays and didn't know any of the full-timers) they asked around about me and everyone had a negative review of me. They told me that "sometimes, even though you might be joking, you can catch people off-guard and you might offend a customer". I was like, so you "asked" people I never work with, and you can confirm I never said anything off-color or sexual, and no client has complained, but potentially something I say might offend someone? Needless to say, I'd never been spoken to about performance. And then they "fired" me.

In case you're thinking this is my personal paranoia, my friend was paid a high wage for setting up a start-up office, and once the work was done and they realized they could replace her with a receptionist, they suddenly, amazingly, discovered all these performance problems (nevermind the fact that they were standing in a fully functional office that was a testament to her performance) and "fired" her. Another friend got called in on a Monday and they told her people were complaining about her data. She said, 'um, I don't work with data at all.' Then Wednesday, suddenly, amazingly "people" had complained about her" and she was fired.

All this has happened since the economy tanked. Maybe it's a combination of company's not wanting to be seen as having problems with laying people off, not wanting to be involved in unemployment claims, and the abundance of workers letting employers act unethically, but the current environment is bringing out the worst in companies.

I'm sorry to be paranoid but it does sound to me like they possibly could be potentially assembling a reasons to fire you list.

Ask a Manager said...

Rosezilla, I'm certainly not saying that never happens, because of course it does, but the vast, vast majority of times that managers meet with an employee to give critical feedback, it's not about assembling a case to let the person go. Sure, of course it happens, but the vasty majority of the time, it's simply about what it appears to be on the surface -- giving feedback. That's a major part of the job of a manager, after all.

I'm sorry to hear about you and your friend. That sucks, absolutely. But I would hate for people to think any and all critical feedback is leading up to that!

Rachel - I Hate HR said...

Obviously this was handled poorly. I'm sure you'd be a lot less paranoid if you hadn't found out about this secretly.

Just smile and nod in the meeting and work on getting another job.

Ask a Manager said...

Rachel, I completely agree that finding out about it secretly is a recipe for feeling paranoia and dread, even if unwarranted.

But work on a new job? No! First she should go to the meeting and hear them out. All around the world at this very moment, managers are delivering corrective feedback -- it's part of being a manager. Most of the time, it doesn't mean someone is being pushed out.

Anonymous said...

I have a little bit of a safety net before I'm fired on this one: I work for a university, and don't have any previous performance problems. So, they can't come right out and fire me.

The job has already been tanking since myself and another long-term employee were passed over for two available promotions, and two outside people with the same credentials and work experience as us were hired instead. Since we have never been told of performance problems, we suspect it was because the director figured we wouldn't be able to find replacement jobs in the economy.

My gut feeling on this one was with you Rosezilla, but i hope I'm wrong. I'll let y'all know how the meeting goes.

llamaface said...

I think you gave spot on advice! I hope the OP will update us after the meeting on Monday!

Anonymous said...

I would expect some grovelling and profuse apologies about the list being left on the public photocopier. That really can't have helped your frame of mind; however, it's given opportunity to get assistance and collect your thoughts. Please let us know how the meeting went. Lynda.

HR Godess said...

I agree with AAM on this one. When I first got into HR, I received the worst performance appraisal I'd ever gotten, out of the blue. No previous mention of any issue and I was very mad. Once I thought about it, I listened to the feedback, made some changes and started to soar in the position. My manager was non-confrontational, which is why my performance appraisal was the first time I heard about issues but learned that if she mentions things as they happen, I was happy to adapt to doing things the way she preferred. It ended up being a great experience and she was my mentor and got me started in this field.

Had I been negative and not listened to anything she said, I would have been fired. Go in with an open mind, process what is said to you and see if there are any changes you could make. Some managers prefer things done their way. It's their perrogative to do so even though I think it's silly if the outcome is what they wish.

Jobs are hard to come by now and it would be in your best interest to put forth some effort before throwing in the towel.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Its unfortunate that this economy has resulted in an employers market and made us employees a bunch of kiss-asses! We are all people and just because we work for someone doesn't give employers the right to be unjustly critical, nor should it prevent employees from sharing their perspective of the employer (you call it "being defensive"). You give the impression that we should all just lay down and accept what they say (oh, sorry, "listen" to them, get their "feedback"). In most cases, management is as much to blame for bad relations as the employees, so it should be a 2-way street. Nothing wrong with trying to improve communications, and nothing wrong with treating the situation with kid gloves to maintain relations, but please have some respect for yourself.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to comment about the sick family leave. This time may have been FMLA protected and if so, the director cannot address this as a concern. If the director does bring this up in the meeting, I would advise speaking to someone in HR.