Today’s show is Specific Situational Feedback Conversations. Listen to the show on iTunes and Stitcher.

Don [00:00:00] What we’re trying to do is have a conversation that does more than simply trigger defensiveness and threat. Our strategies that we develop for managers and use in our workshops, are about getting underneath threat detection.

Don [00:00:17] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.”

Don [00:00:26] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and valued.

Don [00:00:39] Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive. Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips, strategies and tools needed to create an engaged, culture at work.

Kelly [00:01:05] Welcome, I’m your host Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions.

Kelly [00:01:15] As always we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO Don Rheem.

Kelly [00:01:21] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.

Don [00:01:24] It’s my pleasure, Kelly.

Kelly [00:01:26] As we heard at the top of today’s episode this week’s focus is on specific, situational feedback conversations.

Kelly [00:01:31] While it’s important as we talked about last week to provide feedback to employees at regular intervals, there are often cases where something happens when there’s a triggering event or a specific situation which prompts a feedback conversation to occur as soon as possible.

Kelly [00:01:47] Every leader has faced a situation like this where they need to talk to an employee about a particular instance that they need to give some feedback on.

Kelly [00:01:56] What is a situational feedback conversation and how does it differ from a regular scheduled feedback conversation? What are some incidences that might prompt one of these conversations?

Don [00:02:06] Well it usually happens when the manager or another employee sees something happen of that, employee X, has done and it comes to the attention of the manager again either directly or indirectly.

Don [00:02:19] And the managers says, wow, I’ve got to talk about that with an employee that’s unacceptable, that might be dangerous, it could be risking lives, have large costs to the organization around quality of materials or scrap.

Don [00:02:30] They need to know they need to have a specific conversation about a specific thing that employee did.

Kelly [00:02:36] Unlike scheduled conversations where a leader can prepare they have these every month, they know what they’re going to talk about, a situational feedback conversation can induce that palm sweating, heart beating, limbic system flooding experience in any leader especially those who are conflict avoiders, which we talk about is a whole lot of us.

Kelly [00:02:54] So how can our understanding of the brain help us prepare for these specific conversations?

Don [00:02:59] Looking at this through the lens of neuroscience and the brain and the limbic system, what we’re trying to do is have a conversation that does more than simply trigger defensiveness and threat. Our strategies that we developed for managers and use in our workshops and certainly is in my book, are about getting underneath threat detection.

Don [00:03:21] And so we want to create an environment that feels safe to have the conversation. And then we have a structured approach.

Don [00:03:30] Well, number one, you talked about the heart beating and it feels very intense. That’s the wrong time to go in and have a conversation with this because when the manager gets, and this is a neurological term, gets flooded, as a result of fear, anger or anxiety or whatever it is, they actually lose capacity, mental capacity to have this conversation.

Don [00:03:51] Their IQ drops, they just have less faculties to bring into the conversation which means it’s more likely to be a hierarchical and punitive conversation with the individual.

Don [00:04:02] And I know those have been the tradition of how we’ve done it but those don’t have the best overall outcomes. Again, they just triggered defensiveness on the part of the employee.

Don [00:04:12] We have a few things that we recommend that the manager do if their heart is thumping and they’re you know really angered, they can go ahead and create an appointment for the conversation preferably the next day or later that day so that they can decompress. The best way to decompress is overnight because you have to de-escalate to sleep.

Don [00:04:31] Sometimes setting that conversation for the next day is the better way to go. Also gives the manager time to do the other research.

Don [00:04:39] We actually have a form that we give to managers on the things they need to do to prepare for that conversation. It includes collecting the facts talking to as many people as they can. Understanding why they have to have the conversation that might be a relationship to human safety, might be a relationship to customer satisfaction, might be relationship to scrap and then redo. Get that down so they have a full litany of things to talk about in terms of the consequences.

Don [00:05:08] The other thing that we do and that is this may sound a little trivial to some but we suggest that the manager ask for permission to have the conversation.

Don [00:05:18] This isn’t like you’re not going to have it if they say no. There’s a big difference between me saying, Kelly, we need to talk, meet me in my office. You’re now being directed to go into my office and you know it’s not going to be good.

Don [00:05:31] Something simple, Kelly, can we talk about this? That’s the permission. Can we talk about this? And when you say yes as most employees do, they’ve given you permission to have the conversation. And it literally is going to go better because they’ve said yes, I’m willing to talk about this as opposed to being forced to talk about it.

Don [00:05:49] And there’s actually some very impressive research around what happens when people have choice and how it changes outcomes. That would be number one. And then you want to reaffirm to that person how important they are to the company. You want to start with their strengths and how important they are. Don’t just jump in the negative.

Don [00:06:06] And then this is a concept in communication that’s not taught but we push it a lot in our communication workshop. But framing is a big issue.

Don [00:06:16] And, let me give you an example of framing. You might say to the individual, if I was in your position, I would want to know anytime something I’ve done can be improved or done better. I never like being in the dark around my performance it’s hard to get better when the people around you are providing some type of constructive feedback.

Don [00:06:34] So I’m framing the conversation, in wouldn’t you like to know if something was up? And most people would, I mean they do care.

Don [00:06:42] Another thing around this feedback conversation is they may not be aware that they have violated some performance edict. It could be a result of poor training, inadequate resources. There are a whole bunch of things that can go into this performance shortfall. Let’s not assume that the employee was consciously trying to fall short, just understand some of those full consequences.

Kelly [00:07:08] While nobody likes to be in a situation where they have to be told what they’ve done that has fallen short, some employees react much more positively to that interaction than others.

Kelly [00:07:20] We recently had a manager reach out to us who sits down with her employee and every time she’s had to have a specific feedback conversation, the employee has been extremely defensive, has wanted to know who said this about me, wants to make excuses about what has happened and in that defensiveness and maybe there’s as a survival mechanism going on that they want to feel safe so they need to justify and fight for themselves. But it makes this manager feel really vulnerable in those conversations, doesn’t know how to have them well. And that’s a pretty common experience for a manager to go through.

Kelly [00:07:59] You had some great insights for her on how to deal with that kind of situation and that kind of employee.

Don [00:08:04] When an employee is asking for details and names, what they’re doing is they’re they’re pushing that conversation to a lower altitude. They’re in effect asking for proof.

Don [00:08:15] And when they’re able to frame the conversation around the details it’s very difficult for anyone to win because the manager will come up with one set of details, the employee will come up with a different set. Yeah, but what about this and I did that and that’s not the place where you want this conversation to play out because it’s much less likely that you’ll be successful.

Don [00:08:36] What I want to do is climb an altitude. And, where there will be agreement is around core values.

Don [00:08:41] For example and maybe pick one of those core values and say, what I really want to have a conversation with you about today is mutual respect, one of our core values. Can we have this conversation about mutual respect because there are some things that that I’m concerned about that I would like to talk with you about?

Don [00:08:59] Now I did two things there. One, I asked for permission but two, I made it about my felt experience. I’m concerned about, the employee can’t say, you know you’re not concerned.

Don [00:09:09] So I want to frame the conversations with things that are unassailable if you will.

Don [00:09:14] I’m worried, I’m concerned. I get a little scared when, I was disappointed by. The manager leads with their emotional experience. It’s not something that can be countered. That’s really important.

Don [00:09:26] The other thing they can do is you can characterize the response of the person.

Don [00:09:32] If you were this employee asking about facts and data. I might say I’m going to enter this not with finger-pointing or shaming or an accusation. I’m going to frame my approach built on a frame of curiosity.

Don [00:09:45] So I’m going to say Kelly I’m just curious when we have these conversations, it feels like the first thing you do is rush to defense. That you’re very defensive and you’re asking for names and details and I and I just don’t feel like you’re hearing what I’m telling you. And I’m afraid that if you just constantly jump down to these things you’re going to miss the broader point that we need to have together. You are having an impact on other members of the team. It’s not about facts and names and data. It’s about your impact and what looks like your inability to feel that impact and to talk about it. Can we talk about your impact on others?

Don [00:10:24] And so now I’m climbing in altitude to talk about their impact rather than specific details because they can argue facts and figures all day long but the impact is a much more grounding approach.

Kelly [00:10:36] I really like the way that you frame that.

Kelly [00:10:38] What guidelines should managers keep in mind when they are about to hold or when they’re holding a triggered feedback conversation?

Don [00:10:44] One of the things that is really helpful in these conversations is understanding what that individual is going to be held accountable to or what kinds of guidelines or what tools does a manager have in these conversations.

Don [00:10:57] And there’s a couple of different frames that we use.

Don [00:11:01] And I like to start with the positive. I’m going to start with a sense of gratitude for what they do and have done but ask is there an opportunity to do something better or different. I’m going to start with gratitude.

Don [00:11:11] I might also start with a little bit of self-reflection in this conversation. Getting them to self reflect on their impact and what it’s like. I might approach them through the standpoint of our focus on continuous improvement. And it’s not necessarily something you’ve done wrong but how can we do this even better?

Don [00:11:28] There’s a specific phrase that we teach managers to do in our workshop. It’s called, label and redirect.

Don [00:11:33] And and in this approach the manager labels the response of the individual not with negative tonality but just puts a label on it. But the redirect is what’s really important so let me give you an example of this.

Don [00:11:45] So let’s say you come to me and you’re defensive or you want to know the facts, I would say, Kelly, I hear your concern. So I’ve labeled what you just did as a concern but the redirect is really important. But what I really need to know is what could we do differently next time to get a better outcome. So I hear your concern. Boom that’s not enough. That’s not enough for me. That’s the label. Stop what was said. Put a label on it. Not necessarily negative. But then to do the redirect. But what I really need to know is what could we do differently next time?

Don [00:12:16] Now a couple of things about that. One, I redirected into the future which is the least likely to be seen as blaming and what was my pronoun choice?

Kelly [00:12:25] We.

Don [00:12:26] Exactly. This is where I’m going to acknowledge that this employee is in a system with other people.

Don [00:12:32] In the literature around accountability it’s sometimes referred to as the problem of many hands. There were many hands that touched that issue and more often than not the act of pointing a finger at one individual and blaming them turns out to be an act of scapegoating where the manager blames an individual rather than taking the time to understand. How did that happen in our system?

Don [00:12:54] And as I’ve said I’m trained as a biologist and ecologist I always know there’s an ecosystem that this employee is in. Is there something in the system that encouraged or allowed this to happen? As a manager, I want to know what that is.

Don [00:13:06] Now if the person has chronic excuses and finger pointing about everybody else I’m going to change the label. And I’m going to change the direction of the redirect. I’m going to say, Kelly, I hear the excuse. But what I really need to know is what could we have done differently to get the outcome we were looking for?

Don [00:13:23] Let’s deconstruct what happened into the past and find that out. Now if I have that conversation with the employee about what could we have done differently. And they give me lots of ideas but nothing involves them that’s a problem.

Don [00:13:37] Now I’m going to say, but I’m going to enter it through a standpoint of curiosity. I’m going to say, Kelly, I’m just curious all those great ideas you had wonderful but I didn’t hear anything about your specific role as the project lead. Can we talk about that for a little bit? I’m going to push down get to the individual.

Kelly [00:13:52] Label in redirect is a great way for you to take control of the conversation. Avoid the back and forth of who said that and this is my excuse for that and this is why that happened, and put it in a really positive frame to move that conversation to a more productive way.

Don [00:14:10] So in the specific example you gave of where the manager said this person always gets defensive the label might be, okay, I hear the defensiveness but what I really need to know is what can we do differently next time so the team can work together without rancor?

Kelly [00:14:24] I love that.

Kelly [00:14:25] So what are some of the best ways to follow up from one of those triggered feedback conversations? It’s going to look quite a bit different than a scheduled feedback conversation follow up that we discussed last week.

Don [00:14:34] We love it if there’s a specific plan around what the employee is going to do differently and that has it’s somewhat granular, has some traction to it specific things that that employee can then go do. And some managers do that but then they never follow up. So I want to follow up regularly. How are you doing? And then if I see examples of where they’re doing it different I want to give them reinforcement and recognition for having done that.

Don [00:14:58] That’s a huge part because what’s happening is they more often than not have to behave in a way they haven’t done regularly before.

Don [00:15:05] I want to create a positive new habit. What the research on habits says is that the more positive recognition and reinforcement I get around doing that I’m more likely to lock it in as a habit, not a one and done.

Kelly [00:15:17] Absolutely. So that plan of action that you create together is going to look different depending on what situation triggered the conversation. But at the end of the conversation for you to say let’s circle up the same time next week to talk about how things have been going since then and setting that expectation from the get-go in that conversation is a great way for the employee to not only feel supported in moving forward but also know that this isn’t going away. This isn’t a one and done conversation and they can get away with this behavior or performance again in the future.

Don [00:15:50] We’ve talked in the past and previous podcasts for example about meaning and purpose and why employees look forward to coming to work.

Don [00:15:56] I don’t want to shy away from also talking about consequences. So if I know that this employee is very focused on job security. I am going to talk about consequences now but I don’t have to go right to job security. That’s often very threatening.

Don [00:16:11] One of the lines and we heard it recently in open-ended comments which so we know managers are still saying this. You can be replaced. That’s not what we’re advocating.

Don [00:16:20] But I want to talk to them about the consequences but maybe consequences to the core values consequences to the organization, consequences for their team members for the customer experience. Talk about the consequences of what they’re doing. Not in a sort of punitive fingerpointing way but this is a way to get them to self reflect and many employees we’ve found are just ill-attuned to understanding those.

Don [00:16:45] The biggest warning sign for us in these situations is when the manager shares some of these outcomes of what the employees has done and the employee says, yeah, I don’t know what their problem is, they need to grow up, this is work.

Don [00:16:58] That is they’re still deflecting. That even when they see the consequences they blame it on the other. That may be someone who’s on one of the spectrums like narcissism. And so it’s very very hard they never see themselves as being responsible. They never see them. They’re never the problem. And this is where a manager might have to get more and more specific about where they’re a part of a team and creating this shared sense of social identity—things that we have the team have created that we want to come back to and say, hey, we’re falling short on this.

Kelly [00:17:32] And it doesn’t feel good but sometimes the consequence needs to get to a point where that employee isn’t a good fit for the team or for the organization.

Kelly [00:17:41] At what point does a manager make that call?

Don [00:17:43] One point would be when the person just doesn’t take responsibility for anything. Then they think they’re just perfect and they haven’t done anything wrong. That’s going to be someone that’s going to be hard to integrate with any team at any time and in the current labor market, I would release them to the market.

Don [00:18:02] There’s never been a better time for someone who’s been released to find new work. But the longer you wait to replace someone like that the harder it’s going to be to find someone of the talent level that you need to do.

Don [00:18:14] This is one of the challenges that we see with managers and we’ve talked about conflict avoidance but they don’t do anything about these players. And they have a devastating impact on the team. T.

Kelly [00:18:25] Triggered feedback conversations aren’t something that we enjoy having but they’re inevitable for us as leaders to deal with on a case by case basis.

Kelly [00:18:32] I really like what we’ve talked about here that you take some time to breathe, reflect gather facts before you hold a triggered feedback conversation, rather than doing it right away. Asking for permission to have that conversation allows the employee to say yes and have a choice that sets you up for better conversational success. Labeling and redirecting is a really powerful way to help prevent a he-said-she-said or an argument around facts. And raising the altitude up to impact and values versus only talking about facts specifically helps the employee understand what their performance their behavior is doing to the rest of the team to the organization to the leader and to themselves on a daily basis.

Don [00:19:16] Yeah that’s a great summary Kelly and I just encourage anyone that wants to dig deeper on these issues related to feedback to just pick up a copy of my book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures,” and there’s a whole chapter in that book on this very thing.

Kelly [00:19:31] That’s it for today. I’m your host Kelly Burns and thank you for listening.

Kelly [00:19:35] Tune into next week’s episode on seeking feedback as a leader.

Kelly [00:19:40] Are you looking for science-based solutions to increase employee engagement and retention? Are you ready to measure key drivers of high-performance? Do you want your team to look forward to coming to work? Don’t wait. Check out e3 right now. Be sure to subscribe, rate and review the show. Each rating and review helps other managers like you find this show and benefit from these episodes.

Kelly [00:20:04] Thrive By Design is produced and audio engineered by Megan Rummler. All music in this episode is sourced royalty-free from

Kelly [00:20:13] Thank you for listening and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts. See you next week!