Supervisors have many responsibilities. One responsibility that’s often neglected, however, is the responsibility to give feedback that helps people learn, grow, and correct mistakes. Consider this all-too-common scenario (the dialogue is what the supervisor says out loud; the literal facts are in parentheses):
Supervisor: I have this really difficult employee who isn’t very good at this job, and I’ve had enough. He doesn’t complete tasks correctly, rubs his team the wrong way by making harsh comments, and leaves early. I think I’m going to have to fire him. (The employee takes a different approach than I would take, actually rubs me, not the team, the wrong way, and has only left early twice in the past two years.)
Colleague: Have you talked to him about it?
Supervisor: Yeah, I addressed it with him a couple of times and made suggestions for what he could do. (I once told him that “some people made comments about his performance and that he should be more aware of how he impacts others.” Another time, I made a light joke about how he communicates.)
Colleague: So that didn’t make any difference, even after giving him a development plan?
Supervisor: No, he just keeps doing the same things and doesn’t seem to get it. I’ve tried everything. He’s just a problem and is never going to get it. (I didn’t try anything except what I already told you, including giving him any sort of development plan.)
Unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are more common than we’d like to admit. Employees receive little to no feedback, direct communication, or development plan. Supervisors then blame and ultimately punish the employee. The result? The employee pays for what is essentially the supervisor’s shortcomings and failure to do their own job. So does the company, who now loses an employee that could have easily been developed. All the initial time and resources that went into hiring, training, and learned knowledge is now for nothing, and the organization has to start over again from scratch.
The Role of Supervisor
One of the primary responsibilities of any supervisor is to develop people, not manage work. This is one trait that differentiates leading from managing. However, when supervisors default to managing and fail to develop people, the employee and the rest of the organization suffer. Common reasons why supervisors don’t provide this kind of feedback include:
- Fear of conflict
- Assuming that employees should just “get it” without needing to be told
- Focusing on other work instead
- Not knowing how to deliver feedback
- Hoping the problems will somehow correct themselves or just go away
Ironically, the only time the employee does get feedback is when the problems have built up to the point of disciplinary action or firing (and, even then, I’ve seen people either still not receive any feedback or only receive generic, superficial feedback).
By the time the problems have escalated, it’s usually too late to turn things around. To add insult to injury, the employee was never even given a chance to correct their behavior. They may have never even known there was a problem in the first place! Yet, they pay the price for the supervisor’s shortcomings while the supervisor isn’t held accountable.
On the other hand, when supervisors act like leaders, they recognize that, in many ways, the success or the failure of their employees depends on how they develop them. Whether it’s through coaching, mentoring, or providing regular feedback, it’s the supervisor’s job to help their people grow and succeed.
The Cost of Not Supervising
Supervision can be challenging. Between handling day-to-day tasks, tracking the team’s progress, managing work, being the go-between for their team and upper management, and other responsibilities, there is a lot to do. Already stressed, taking the time for an uncomfortable conversation can feel like too much.
Instead of providing feedback, supervisors tend to go to either end of the spectrum by being too hands-off and avoiding meaningful interaction or being too hands-on and doing the person’s work for them. Both strategies ultimately fail to develop people and help them learn the necessary skills to succeed in their jobs.
Although there are likely “good” reasons for not having these conversations, the cost of not having them can be far greater:
- Continued mistakes resulting in damage to the organization, people, products, or processes
- Employees not feeling valued or invested in, and ultimately quitting or feeling resentful
- Behaviors continue and impact other team members, who then get derailed doing damage control, avoiding the person, or quitting
- Doing extra work and/or buffering to overcompensate for the person’s shortcomings or mistakes
- Built-up resentment and stress
- Unloading all at once at performance reviews, which erodes trust, gives no opportunity for improvement, and is typically too little, too late
Again, it’s the supervisor’s responsibility to give feedback. Regardless of reasons not to, it’s crucial to take the time and effort to provide direct, specific, and ongoing feedback. Anything less is a setup for potential failure.
Although there are many best practices for providing effective feedback, the bottom line is to start doing it. Whether you give feedback in the moment, as part of regular 1:1 conversations, written or verbal, or for groups or for individuals, it’s crucial to look for opportunities.
Feedback doesn’t have to be negative or constructive. In fact, providing significantly more positive feedback than negative feedback will yield much better results. (Marriage expert John Gottman suggests a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in marriage, and the same ratio could be applied when providing feedback at work. That said, counting your ratio or forcing positive feedback will only come across as insincere and ultimately backfire, so use the ratio as a rough estimate. Hint: frequently look for wins or successes, no matter how small, and acknowledge them.) Another benefit to emphasizing positive feedback is that it builds trust, which ultimately makes it easier when the time comes to deliver constructive feedback.
When you prioritize giving feedback, your job actually becomes easier. By swapping short-term pain for long-term gain, your team will become stronger, more independent, and higher-performing. You’ll free up time by not constantly putting out fires, your overall stress will decrease, you’ll gain respect and trust from your people, and you’ll boost morale and loyalty. To get started, reflect on the following:
- What might you gain by providing ongoing feedback?
- What keeps you from providing regular feedback to your direct reports or colleagues?
- Instead of giving feedback, do you tend to either keep a distance from your people or overcompensate by doing work for them? How could you find more balance?
- What specific feedback would you give current direct reports or colleagues?
- What positive, genuine, “low-hanging fruit” feedback can you provide on a regular basis?