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The right way to give your team feedback in 2021


By Kate Vonderhaar, Managing Director

In normal times, January is when I and many leaders think about our plan for coaching staff throughout the year, beyond the formal annual review discussion. We think about the cadence of check-in conversations, how we'll recognize staff, and how we'll help struggling team members course-correct.

There are no signs that 2021 will be a normal year: Health care workers continue to be pummeled by the enormous, cumulative toll of the pandemic—on top of the stress and burnout pre-existing in the workforce. As such, any feedback conversation must account for this reality.

Read on to learn two goals to focus on during feedback conversations in the coming months. But first, sign up for our "Be a Better Manager in 2021" webinar series where you'll get the tools and strategies you need to support staff year-round, hold effective virtual meetings, and become a more confident remote manager.

As you approach feedback conversations in the coming months, I'd encourage you to focus on two goals.

1. Recognize staff for completing routine tasks in the current extraordinary circumstances. Many leaders are used to spotting "above and beyond" performance to celebrate. But in the current operating environment, we need to re-frame what’s worthy of recognition. We need to explicitly thank team members who are accomplishing routine tasks amid so much disruption and stress. So, before a check-in with a team member, consider:

  • What new expectations is the person consistently meeting? What Covid-induced changes have they navigated well?
  • What actions or behaviors have always been "part of the job" but are worthy of extra recognition in the current circumstances?
  • How is this person supporting their own resilience? Take this opportunity to reinforce any positive coping behaviors they're using like taking breaks and asking for help.
  • How are they supporting their peers?

Reflecting on these questions will help you spot behaviors and accomplishments that shouldn't go unnoticed.

2. Reinforce appropriate performance standards. Think about this in two ways: there are some standards that always need to be met, even now. But there are some expectations that might be on hold, or no longer relevant. It's important to clearly communicate those to staff, so they aren't putting unnecessary stress on themselves trying to meet expectations from an old world.

4 questions to ask when staff are not meeting standards

Conversations about standards that aren't being met—but need to be—are challenging in the best of times. But they are especially tricky now, given all the factors that could be influencing a team member's behavior. If you have a team member who isn't meeting a specific expectation, pause first and ask yourself these questions:

1. Is the unmet expectation clearly in play right now? Or did I explicitly or implicitly give permission to deprioritize it?

There are basic ground rules that are always in play—for example, it's never okay for a team member to be disrespectful toward a colleague. But there are other expectations that a reasonable person might assume are no longer required amid so many pandemic-induced changes. In fact, as managers, we might have told our teams not to worry about the very expectation we are now surprised a team member isn't meeting.

2. If I gave permission to deprioritize this expectation for a time, have I explicitly asked team members to re-prioritize it?

During a crisis, it is entirely appropriate to suspend some expectations—you should actively look for initiatives that can be put on pause, meetings that your team can skip, and important-but-not-urgent work that can be delayed. But you can't assume a team member will automatically know when the original expectations are back in play. If you thought the expectation was back in full force, but your team member didn't, there's a communication problem, not a performance problem.

3. Am I aware of all the tasks on this team member's plate?

This is a good question to ask in all times, but especially in an "all-hands-on-deck" environment. Has your team member been tapped to help another team? Did they volunteer to pitch in on a mission-critical project? That might be why they've been missing the mark in another area.

4. How likely is it that I would be seeing this behavior from this person outside of the pandemic?

Team members are shouldering a wide range of incredibly heavy burdens—seeing patients, colleagues, and family members fall ill and possibly pass away; juggling childcare and remote learning; struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness; and so much more. These factors may be influencing team members' actions. If you're surprised by a person's behavior, have a conversation centered on their well-being (rather than jumping straight to correcting the performance issue).


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