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Human Resources
May 1, 2015

Why ‘Totally Awesome’ Is Awful For Employees

Sponsored Content provided by Dave Hoff - Chief Operating Officer and Executive VP of Leadership Development, EASI Consult

The need for increasingly superlative superlatives along with a millennial cohort accustomed to recognition for participation has painted today’s managers into a “feedback” corner. What I am trying to say is that it is harder and harder to have a conversation with employees that specifically addresses areas where performance falls short of expectations.
Being a “seasoned” professional gives me the luxury of having seen a lot of things come and go. Clearly there have been a lot of changes and improvements over the more than 30 years that I have been in the workforce. For example, things have gone from being hierarchical with a defined chain of command to collaborative, participative and in some cases remote. In the more controlling environment of my early career, managers and employees had performance management discussions. Part of that conversation was about the things that had gone well; those things were acknowledged, appreciated and rewarded. There was a part of the same discussion that focused on areas needing improvement. The better managers described these deficiencies descriptively and non-judgmentally. The less-skilled managers stumbled through this part of the conversation and left the employee inadvertently bruised.
As the pendulum began to swing in the other direction, some organizations adjusted the “scale” being used for performance management and appraisals, going from a 3-point to a 5-, 7- or 9-point scale. That failed too, because managers ended up using just three of the points on the scale. So like it or not, you had a three-point scale.
Then along came the pass/fail system. Isn’t that what you really want to tell people, if they are doing well or not? You know what happened. Everyone, I mean virtually everyone, passed. It was like having no system to discuss performance, and in some places performance discussions went dormant. The unintended consequence was that the strongest performers felt dis-incentivized because they got the same recognition as the people who didn’t do their jobs.
In the last five to 10 years we have become a kinder, gentler society and this is reflected in the management style and systems you find at many organizations. Technology companies have led this latest transformation in many ways.
I worked for a couple of technology companies in the early 2000s. Many of the people who worked for those companies had unique technical skills and if you didn’t leave them alone or treat them “right” in their minds, then they might be working somewhere else the next day. So how do you have these kinds of performance discussions when you need to walk on eggshells?
That led us to approaches and systems that only focused on the positive. Gallup has a tool or system called Strengths Finder. The focus is all on the positive. The Wall Street Journal had an article in February 2015 entitled, “Everything is Awesome! Why You Can’t Tell Employees They’re Doing a Bad Job.” The title tells you pretty much what the article is about.
I admit that we as a society are inclined to spend very little time on what someone has done well, but we have an inordinate supply of information about what that person can improve on, or is not doing at all. I am not sure where that all started – original sin or some religious belief from long ago.
At the same time, if we sugarcoat everything and never talk descriptively, objectively and sensitively about how someone is performing against how they might perform, then how does that person get better? The greatest athletes, artists and musicians would not have achieved their success if they did not get performance improvement feedback. Telling someone that everything they do and are doing is “awesome” is dishonest and a disservice to them if they want to do better.
I am not saying that feedback should be all positive or negative, but it must be balanced. How you say something is as important as what you say. If you can be descriptive, sensitive and balanced in your feedback, then those truly awesome people have a chance to be truly more awesome.
Balanced feedback can come from me as the manager or in the form of a question to my employee. Here’s an example:
Manager: How did you think you did on the last project? What went well? What do you think you could do better the next time?
Now, here’s an example of an evaluative answer versus a descriptive answer.
Manager’s evaluative answer: I didn’t think you did very well on that project. That wasn’t your best effort. (As an employee, how do I know what I need to change or do differently?)
Manager’s descriptive answer: Let’s talk about that project you just completed. I thought you did a good job of getting the team organized. Everyone was clear on what the goals were and what each person’s role was on the project. However, when Bill and John had the disagreement about how to do task 2, you did not intercede and get things back on track. That delayed the results of the project by about a week. Other people indicated they were frustrated and wished you had gotten involved earlier. Thinking back, how could you have handled that differently? Is there something I could have done to support you in the situation?
Although the example of a descriptive answer points out a less-than-awesome action by the employee, it also helps the employee identify areas and strategies for improvement. And isn’t the point of providing feedback?
EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI Consult’s specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI Consult, visit, email [email protected] or call 800.922.EASI.

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