How to Give Feedback to Your Employees: Nine Tips

This usually isn’t the best way to offer feedback to your staff.
In our research on nonprofit organizations, we found that more nonprofit staffers complained about the weak management skills of their executive directors and supervisors than about any other problem.

Among the most critical but under-developed skills: feedback-giving. Here is some straightforward advice:

1) Actually give feedback to your staffers. The alternatives (passive-aggressive outbursts, complaining about one staffer to other staffers, abruptly firing them, wishing you had the gumption to abruptly fire them) all suck.

2) Provide feedback frequently. The annual evaluation has its place, but it’s a poor substitute for regular feedback throughout the year.

3) Assume she was acting in good faith with good intentions. Assume her motives were all spot-on, in other words, and focus instead on her words and actions.

4) It’s often helpful to start by asking your employee to talk through what happened, what she did and why, and how she would evaluate her own performance (whether you are talking about a specific event or performance over the course of some time period). It gives her a chance to set the tone and she may have already identified some of the successes and critiques you had planned to raise. You might even shift your view on her performance if you know more about what she did and why.

5) Be direct and clear when providing feedback on the things she did that you liked and on the things she might (or should) have done differently. Even managers who do a good job of providing regular feedback often stumble on this point, just as many people often stumble when communicating with board members, friends, lovers, spouses, and kids. You have to be clear about what worked and what didn’t if you expect your staffer to remain motivated and improve her performance.

6) But don’t be a jerk about it! “Direct and clear” doesn’t mean patronizing, insensitive, or rude.

7) Offer very clear direction on what she might do differently next time, on what lessons to draw from the experience, and on how to improve. If you don’t do this, and she doesn’t improve, her subsequent underperformance is on you.

8) If you are trying to foster a culture of innovation you have to reward people for taking risks. This doesn’t mean that you should celebrate every risk someone takes; if you establish clear boundaries and expectations for risk-taking, you can evaluate your staff based on how well they operated within those limitations. But if your team believes they’ll get chastised when risks they take don’t pan out, you’ll be encouraging risk-aversion rather than risk-tolerance. Likewise, if you find ways to reward your team for taking smart risks even when they don’t work out, you’ll incentivize the innovative culture you are after.

9) Finally, you may have to work hard to avoid making people feel defensive when initiative a feedback interaction. Part of managing this is ensuring that you are calling out the good and the bad throughout your frequent feedback interactions (and making a point of calling out the good more often is usually pretty helpful). Part of tackling this is clearly establishing the feedback process in your organization as a frequent learning loop. Every feedback interaction is an opportunity for someone on your team to figure out how to improve their performance and for you to learn more about what they need from you to excel in their work. And part of sidestepping someone’s instinctive defensiveness is getting to know them well enough to figure out how – with each of your direct reports – to create the right space for a productive feedback interaction.

These tips are easier to write down in a blog post than they are to execute, but none are especially difficult if you commit to making productive feedback interactions an important part of your organizational culture.

(Photo by Flickr user Orange Steeler.)

Building an Exceptional Staff: The Research Hospital Model

Although the Mayo Clinic facilities may not serve as a great model for other nonprofits, some of their practices might.
I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend whose dad has been suffering from intense gastrointestinal problems for months. Multiple doctors and tons of tests but nothing to show for it except ‘hang in there, maybe it’ll clear up on its own.’

After being hospitalized during a particularly severe bout, the doctor persuaded him to head to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Four hours after arriving there, with zero new tests, his team of Mayo Clinic GI specialists figured out he was having an extremely rare allergic reaction to his blood pressure medication. They’ve seen only 15 other cases; it’s rare and new enough that there isn’t anything in the medical literature yet. One of the problems confounding the diagnosis: he’d end up in the hospital only when his symptoms were severe. His blood pressure would be unusually low as a result of those symptoms, they’d remove him from the blood pressure medicine, he’d feel better, and then after being discharged he’d start taking the drug again and the symptoms would return.

How was it that the doctors in Minnesota were able to figure this out – a complex and extremely rare condition – in a matter of hours while countless doctors before them failed? A big part of the answer is that through their role at the Mayo Clinic, which is essentially a teaching and research hospital, they collectively see a huge number of patients with an extremely wide array of challenging cases. Their breadth of experience, and especially with difficult diagnoses, meant they’d simply seen a much wider variety of conditions than most and their diagnostic skills were sharper as a result.

How does this relate to nonprofits? Most nonprofits don’t invest much of their intellectual capital or their resources into staff development, growing and stretching people through their tenure at an organization or over their career to help them become exceptional advocates and nonprofit leaders. Some of the best nonprofit folks incidentally end up with exposure to a wide variety of specific challenges and circumstances, and some figure out how to seek that breadth of experience out themselves, but most nonprofits could probably do a better job of deliberately exposing their staff to a wider universe of new challenges and difficult problems.

This doesn’t necessarily mean someone needs to spend time working across different fields, moving through fundraising, program management, administration, organizing, and other departments. The GI specialists at the Mayo Clinic are truly specialists in a very specific field. But it does mean figuring out how to exposure your team to a wide variety of challenges within that field, making sure they are building up loads of real experience problem solving (problem solving skills) and exposure to a wide array of circumstances from which to draw when troubleshooting problems and crafting strategies (“maybe this time we could use that strategy we tried that other time combined with this new idea I’ve been thinking about”).

A lot of nonprofit folks end up with this sort of exposure along the way, but I suspect most nonprofit managers could do a better job of deliberately making sure that their direct reports pick up a wide and challenging array of experiences.

Rethinking Responsibility and Authority in the Online Organization

Seth Godin recently wrote about authority and responsibility in organizations. Achievers in traditional organizations, Godin says, lobby for more authority in order to get things done. In the top-down organization, one needs authority to act, build, implement. This structure doesn’t necessarily work in rapidly evolving and growing organizations, including nonprofits and others working to adjust to the impact of online networks. As Godin put it:

“Management by authority is top-down, risk-averse, measurable and perfect for the org chart. It’s essential in organizations that are stable, asset-based and adverse to risk.”

Those that demand responsibility should be granted authority, Godin concludes.

Having spent most of my career in and around nonprofit organizations that are “stable [more or less], asset-based [sorta] and adverse to risk [highly]” this got me thinking about the different natures of authority and responsibility in organizations, particularly those struggling to adapt to, integrate and manage digital programs and teams.

Perhaps the key word here is adapt. Online communications is a young and rapidly changing field. Few organizations had websites or email lists just 12 or 15 years ago. Those groups that created a website ten years ago have probably rebuilt it three or four times since (and are likely about the redo it again soon). Facebook, Twitter and much of what we call social media didn’t exist five years ago.

Today, more first gifts are coming in online than off. Organizations have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube pages and more. Time and money are going into growing these networks, text messaging/SMS, iPhone apps and more. Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is doing what, how much it is worth, how to budget and staff for it all and whether this is a communications, development or policy department role.

In other words, rapid change is afoot and is pressuring organizations, boards, staff, budgets and plans. It is changing the expectations of members, activists and donors. People are scrambling to respond but evolving slowly, if at all.

Responding means adaptation, testing, rapid learning and, increasingly, the ability to empower staff (and even outsiders) to speak for the organization on social networks and online media.

Authority-driven hierarchies don’t work well when a premium is placed on rapid learning and adaptation. They assume that the people at the top (organizational leaders and middle managers that might run departments or teams) have complete understanding of the problem at hand, the tools needed to tackle it and what staff need to do.

Does the rapidly changing nature of online run afoul of most organizational structures? Quite possibly. Online teams and structures vary but are generally placed somewhere in an IT or communications department and responsible to the authority of someone with minimal experience in online networks. Online teams may be given responsibility (to put together emails, run Facebook pages, create web content) without clear authority over resources or strategy.

The networked nature of social media can add to the complexity for these organizations. Most everyone – not just online or communications staff – is present on social networks and talking about the issues that concern them, including those of the organization. Activists and donors are on the networks. All of them are tied to the organization and can be speaking on its behalf but how does an organization manage them? It’s hard enough (or impossible) to “manage” staff in other departments. Managing those outside the organization won’t happen. Many organizations fall back to not engaging those outside in a meaningful way. It limits potential but avoids messiness and time-consuming interaction.

Does this mean organizations should dissolve hierarchy, eliminate management/directors/supervisors and watch themselves slip into chaos? Probably not.

But isolating online in a single authority-based team limits the ability of the organization to adapt, grow and share responsibility across (and beyond) the organization. Indeed, responsibility for much of what we think of as “online” rests in many places. Most staff are potential online organizers, communicators and fundraisers. Encourage their responsibility to act appropriately and independently without relying on authority to act.

And online teams themselves are (or should be) stocked with people that are highly engaged online and understand trends. Encourage them to take responsibility for adaptation, innovation and success by granting authority to make decisions and lead. If this threatens authority placed in traditional management positions then deal with that. Online moves fast and the adaptive teams and organizations will come out ahead.

Looking Out for the Youngins

Photo by flickr user wisze.
A local fencing coach, I learned yesterday, keeps an eye out for kids with a lot of potential. He assists their parents in finding good tournaments, helps them imagine what it might be like to attend college on a fencing scholarship (starting with, I presume, pointing out that such a thing is possible in the first place), and makes sure to introduce them to people that might be useful down the line (like the people associated with the colleges that offer those scholarships).

It seems so obvious and so natural, yet in the nonprofit world it seems so rare. Executive directors that go out of their way to identify and then help cultivate the folks with the most potential are surprisingly difficult to find. It’s even tougher to find nonprofit folks that are looking out for high-potential newcomers across other organizations in their larger nonprofit community, and then making a point of giving them extra encouragement and support.

It’s not the skill set, not really, because the skills themselves aren’t complicated: bringing your high-potential junior folks to higher-level meetings (even if all they do is listen), introducing them to important contacts and potential mentors, deliberately escalating their responsibilities, finding new ways to challenge them, ensuring that they are exposed to a wide range of strategies and styles and projects. It’s a lack of imagination, perhaps, or more likely a nonprofit culture blind spot.

The bad news is that it leaves our bench thinner and weaker than it should be, and it puts people into positions of authority with a lot less experience and skill than they could or should have. I’ll bet we lose a lot of people, as well, who could grow into powerful advocates and champions but who bail early because they grow bored or frustrated with the lack of attention. The good news is that it’s not hard to fix.

Do You Need a Vertical Org Chart to Cultivate Your Staff?

Photo by flickr user MattHurst.
I wrote a little yesterday about Jason Fried’s column in Inc. magazine about their efforts at 37signals to keep the organizational structure flat. He relates the story of an employee that moved on to another organization because she had more ambition “than we could use,” by which he meant she wanted a promotion to a more managerial role while they have steadfastly resisted creating those roles in the first place. The thing that struck me most about Fried’s column was his notion of vertical vs. horizontal ambition. For one thing, I don’t think “horizontal” is quite the right word for what he’s describing, although I get his point . . . maybe vertical vs. deeper works better at the cost of a mixed metaphor. More importantly, though, I think there is another kind of vertical ambition that’s worth teasing out of his definition. It’s more of an introspective sort of vertical (vs. the org chart vertical that Fried seems especially focused on).

In our research at the Nooru Foundation a few years ago, we found that many nonprofits in Colorado do well at recruiting strong newcomers, but then aren’t very good at giving them a professional development trajectory. A common type of explanation: there isn’t a lot of turnover at the higher levels, so there isn’t any place to promote people to. That’s one type of vertical ambition (the type Fried seems to be mostly talking about), and it may well be true that a lack of high-level turnover makes it difficult to give newcomers organizational chart promotion opportunities. But it’s a weak excuse for not helping your staff grow and develop professionally over time. It’s very possible to deliberately and thoughtfully give your staff increasing responsibility and more demanding challenges, to push them to the sort of deeper understanding and increasing performance that Fried mentions, to expand the sophistication of their understanding and the expectations of their contributions, to include them in increasingly high-level discussions and introduce them to a wider and higher level range of contacts, and to give them access to training, conferences, coaching, and other professional development resources without ever touching the organizational chart or expanding managerial responsibilities.

Curiously enough, I first saw this in sharp relief in the public sector, as I watched my own city manager and his senior staff do this with their younger staff: give them responsibility for managing a small process, then a larger short-term group, then a standing board. Give them small parts in City Council presentations and then increasingly expand the scope of their presentation responsibility. Set them up to play support on projects, then run small projects, then grow into becoming the point person on bigger projects.

I’ve never worked in a software shop like 37signals, so maybe the model doesn’t work where the output is more about providing high-quality customer service and producing high-quality code, but some version of this approach does make a ton of sense in most of the nonprofits I’ve worked with and seen over the years, and provides a powerful way of thinking about growing your staff that doesn’t rely on charts and titles (though sometimes titles are pretty useful, also).

I think Fried is on to something important when exploring less vertical organizational hierarchies, in other words, but it’s not new territory for nonprofits (and the private sector could probably learn a lot by paying more attention to how many nonprofits do this). And I think he’s on to something when he pushes back against conventional org chart vertical ambition. If the goal is to give our employees the room and opportunity to grow professionally, and it probably should be in most cases, we have a lot to work with regardless of vertical promotion opportunities.