Managing Performance Across Generations: Three Essential Feedback Conversations

Much has been written about the feedback-hungry Millennial generation, and it raises important questions about how performance appraisals are best managed in organizations today.

In our experience, this is not simply an issue of how Baby Boomers and Gen Xers better accommodate the Gen Y (Millennial) generation. Research about the expectations Millennials have for frequent feedback may be well-documented, but in our experience, the expectations that Millennials have for clear and frequent feedback is consistent with best practice from which all employees and their managers can benefit, across all generations.

We have identified three key ways that feedback can be built into the annual performance and feedback cycle on an on-going basis. While we still advocate that a more formal, annual (or even semi-annual) trip to the meeting room to discuss feedback against performance goals is important, below are three other ongoing types of performance conversations that complement the formal conversation and enhance the on-going feedback process.

These three types of conversations, when held throughout the year by managers and employees, can help to improve performance of employees – regardless of their generations.

The Virtual Conversation:

Useful when: Giving real-time feedback that reinforces key messages

With all of the technology available for communication today and the growing demand for instantaneous feedback, managers can think about how they communicate important messages to teams and individuals.
As technology leaders, Millennials will often be the first to embrace instant chat technologies as a convenient way to have an instantaneous work dialogue. HipChat and other internal instant messaging tools can help employees to connect easily in real time.

When an employee already has clear performance goals that have been agreed upon with a manager, chat technologies can be a great way to reinforce positive behaviors. This is known to be important to Millennials, but can benefit everyone. A simple “great job in your presentation to the team today” or a more descriptive “the way you described the process we are introducing really brought clarity to the project” can help clarify that the employee is on the right track.

Not useful when: Giving difficult and/or complex messages

While virtual chat tools provide an easy and convenient way to talk about day-to-day tasks and offer real time feedback, they are usually not the best methods for delivering difficult messages. Where possible, these are best delivered in person when a constructive conversation can lead to a change in performance.

The Constructive Conversation:

Useful When: Giving difficult and/or developmental feedback

As an Australian working in the U.S., I was introduced to the “compliment sandwich” approach to providing feedback. The goal of this popular feedback approach is to leave employees feeling good about their performance, while still providing constructive suggestions for improvement. The Compliment Sandwich involves first, saying something complimentary; secondly, offering an area for suggested improvement; and finally, mentioning another piece of complimentary feedback.

When the focus was on making sure the employee left feeling positive, the effort to balance out feedback in favor of the positive meant that sometimes the compliment sandwich got in the way of a constructive and meaningful conversation.

In my experience, this can lead to difficult messages being left out of the conversation and floating somewhere in the conversation ether. Managers who gravitated to this technique with Millennials consistently voiced that they were afraid to have difficult conversations for fear of derailing their new team members.

Therefore, it is our suggestion that constructive feedback be dealt with head on, in a scheduled, face-to-face conversation. While, of course, the need for on-going positive reinforcement is well-documented as a need for the millennial generation in particular, we advocate doing this on an ongoing basis. This way, when you sit down to offer areas of improvement with the employee, you are building a strong base of ongoing positive feedback. This positive feedback can then be referenced again, as appropriate, in The Constructive Conversation, but managers should not be afraid to give employees of any generation constructive feedback.

The important thing is that The Constructive Conversation be a two-way conversation. The manager can ask employees for their own ideas about how to improve their performance in the specific area under discussion, so that employees play a lead role in reaching their goals.

Not useful when: Giving real-time feedback

It goes without saying that, due to the fact that these conversations are scheduled and (when possible) held face-to-face in a private environment, they are not ideal for day-to-day, real-time feedback. Instead the following approach can continue an ongoing dialogue about addressing development areas highlighted in The Constructive Conversation.

“The Keep the Conversation Going” Conversation:
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Useful when: Giving difficult and/or complex messages
Useful when: The opportunity arises naturally

As in all good relationships in work or play, a frequent, open, and honest dialogue is essential for both parties in building trust. Formal performance check-points should not provide the employee with any surprises; rather they should be a formal way of recording the continued conversation about reaching and exceeding objectives. Managers who have more frequent interactions with their teams will usually find it easier to discuss their team’s strengths and weaknesses with them on an ongoing basis. In my experience in coaching managers about how to have these conversations, I have reminded them that not all conversations with their employees should be about performance! Keeping the communication channels open creates opportunities for rapport and team-building efforts.

When managers and employees keep the ongoing flow of their conversations related to performance, issues are addressed more organically. Employees feel more comfortable addressing the challenges they are facing and become more involved as collaborators with their managers in addressing these.

In short, maintaining conversational continuity is fundamental to the success of managing performance gaps addressed in The Constructive Conversation and the successful reinforcement of The Virtual Conversation. Keeping all three of these conversations as active components of your manager toolkit will help you give more effective feedback to your employees and create a more collaborative and engaging environment for your team across all generations.

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