Preface: Workplace Undercover is a regular feature of this blog. The scenario below was written by Eillen Bui, our research associate. Responding to this scenario is Stephanie Foy, Project Manager for Leading Consciously and Principal of Foy and Associates.
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The scenario: Kathy was running a little late for her first annual review. She hurriedly pushed the door open to the meeting room and smiled apologetically to her manager.

“Sorry I’m late. I was helping a customer pick out a winter jacket.”

Although somewhat annoyed, Jeff spoke up and repeated the company’s mantra, “Customers always come first.”

Jeff cleared his throat and started off, “This is your first review. I’d like to hear from you: what do you think some of your strengths and weaknesses are and have you overcome any of those weaknesses?”

“If you look at my sales record, you will see that I am one of the salespersons with the highest number in sales. I also believe I’m great with communicating and helping people, so customers absolutely love me. I’m confident that I have the lead in customer satisfaction as well. Whenever I am not helping a customer, I’m always busy putting away the clothes customers have tried on,” Kathy replied.

Jeff looked at Kathy expectantly and when she didn’t say anything further, he asked, “Do you believe you have any weaknesses?”

“No,” Kathy quickly said. “I don’t believe I have any.”

“Well, I have looked at your sales for the whole year and it seems that you missed your sales quota quite a few times. And—”, Jeff continued. Kathy interjected, “I might not have met my quota a few months, but I more than made up for it in other months. Not every salesperson is going to have great sales every month. If you look at my total overall sales, I believe I’m one of the best salespersons at this company.”

“Kathy,” Jeff said calmly, “I have looked at your sales record and you are the one with the lowest sales. You also have a lot of customer complaints these past few months. It seems as though—”.

“But that’s impossible!” Kathy said in a high, screechy voice. “All the customers I have helped say I am very friendly and very helpful. I don’t understand why I would have any complaints. And I don’t believe I have the worst sales record. Janine is a much worse salesperson than I am and she’s been working here for almost three years. I hardly ever see her talking to a customer.”

Jeff took a deep breath. “Kathy, I was trying to explain to you what the customers said they loved about you. They did comment that you are always ready with a smile and very helpful. But you don’t listen to what they want. For example, if they asked you to help them find black slacks and a blouse for a cocktail party, you would come back with a red dress. Can you please explain why you would disregard customers’ requests?”

“Because I know what would look good on them and flatter their body type,” Kathy responded.

“Do you understand what the customers’ complaints are actually about? Do you think not heeding customers’ desires might be the cause for your low sales performance?” Jeff asked.

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Do you believe that Kathy felt attacked by Jeff? Was she already on the defensive as soon as she walked into the performance review? Do you think that Jeff powerfully utilized his listening skills and showed openness towards Kathy? How could Jeff have relayed his corrective feedback to Kathy more effectively?

When was a time when you gave or received corrective feedback and it worked for you? How did you feel at the time? What made it work?
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Today’s Response by Stephanie Foy of Leading Consciously. This is an unfortunate situation that happens all too often. Prior to the annual review, staff members may have gotten little if any feedback. Then, when the stakes are high, and people are naturally more anxious, they hear negative feedback for the first time. Such seemed to be the case with Kathy.It was evident that Jeff was caring and doing all he knew to do to get Kathy to hear his feedback. Let’s consider some approaches that would have made this go smoother.

1. Encourage everyone to take a deep breath.

When Kathy arrives late, it is clear she feels a bit uncertain and possibly defensive. Jeff does a good job of giving her positive reinforcement by telling her that customers had commented on her smile and helpfulness.

He could have also given her reassurance and said “Have a seat and take a deep breath, we may be starting a bit late, but we can manage the time”. The suggestion to breathe is helpful in any stressful situation. It calms us, slows the heart rate, and brings more oxygen to the brain which helps us think more clearly.

After the verbal suggestion, Jeff could model the actual behavior by intentionally taking a couple of deep breaths himself. This start would create a more receptive space for both of them for the conversation that was about to take place.

Intentionally taking deep breaths, the kind others hear, will give a subconscious message and most people will automatically begin to take a deep breath themselves. This is a tool that anyone can employ in any situation to help decrease stress and anxiety and increase openness and receptivity.

2. Focus on strengths

To begin the review, Jeff asked Kathy to talk about her strengths and her weaknesses and what she did to overcome them. Although he said “strengths,” in similar situations, especially when feeling a bit uncertain anyway as Kathy must have, many people’s minds will jump to the weaknesses. They begin to wonder, “Oh my, I wonder what they are going to tell me?” and to go into a defensive mode. This is what Kathy did.

Alternatively, Jeff might have been more strength-focused as discussed in Chapter 4 of Reframing Change. He could have told Kathy that the intention of the review was to help her be as successful as she could be at Company XYZ. This conveys a future-orientation and that he has positive expectations for her employment.

By saying “Let’s start with your strengths,” Jeff could have given her feedback about a couple of her strongest behaviors that he had in fact noticed and appreciated.

He could have said, “Kathy, I want to start by saying I have noticed that you are very dependable—you are always on time and ready for work. It is so important that we are ready to greet our customers when we first open and your dependability is something we count on.”

Jeff could then follow up by asking, “Now, Kathy tell me some of what you think your strengths are.”

Given the strength–based tone of the conversation, Kathy will feel less defensive and less need to overinflate her strengths. While she may not still have a realistic picture of her performance, she is more likely to be honest and receptive.

As she talks about her strengths, Jeff should give verbal and nonverbal agreement for those that he concurs with, saying “I agree” and nodding his head. When he disagreed, he could still demonstrate openness and inquiry and say something like, “I see that a little differently, but I can see why you might think that. Let’s discuss this more as we move along”.

Once Kathy has shared her strengths and believes she has been heard as evidenced by his responses, she will be in a better place to hear his corrective feedback on her performance.

To be continued in Part B

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Stephanie Foy is Principal of Foy & Associates and a consultant and coach, specializing in enhancing personal and organizational performance, growth and wellbeing. Stephanie is also the Project Manager for Leading Consciously.

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