How to channel Alex Ferguson and get top performance out of your (work) team

Giving effective feedback means sometimes you need to stop worrying about being liked.

By Donal Cronin Director, Carr Communications

WE ALL WANT to be liked, which is why giving feedback can be hard – particularly the tough stuff.

We have no problem with saying ‘well done’ when we’re happy with someone’s performance.

But when it comes to dealing with behaviour that doesn’t meet expectations, we’re more likely to shy away from giving feedback for fear of how the other person will react, fear of causing conflict and, ultimately, fear of not being liked

In an SME where the team may be smaller and there is almost a sense of ‘family’, this may be even harder still.

Sir Alex Ferguson never came across as someone who worried about being liked. He didn’t actively set out to be disliked, but he was clear that doing his job well and delivering outstanding results might not always lead to him being the most popular person in the room.

Just being liked might not have led to 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles. For him, a key word was consistency. People knew what to expect from him. And consistency is a good word to start with when it comes to giving feedback.

As a manager, you must have a consistent approach to giving good feedback that leads to behaviour change. Feedback can be given badly, or it can be given well. Giving it well is a vital competency. Here are our principles:

Keep the ‘why’ in mind

Explain to staff why you are giving them feedback – and will continue to do so, both the good and what you see as the ‘less than good’. You are doing it for their development.

You are highlighting something that may be holding them back and preventing them from being as good as they can be. Explain that it would be easier for you to say nothing and perhaps to let small things go – but ultimately that wouldn’t be fair to them.

Observe the good

They may be doing 95% right and working above expectations, but you become so fixated on the missing 5% that you lose sight of all the good.

People need to know when they’re doing poorly and when they’re doing well – and, when they’re doing well, be recognised. When we are not acknowledged, we lose motivation, but recognition can be as simple as a ‘thank you’.

Get your ratios right

If feedback is always negative, it can damage the relationship and can lead to the opposite of what you wanted to achieve.

Stable and happy relationships have a ratio of 5:1. That means five positives to every one negative, or developmental piece of feedback, according to leading therapist John Gottman.

He describes poor communications patterns that he sees as distress signals in a relationship that may be heading it to ruin. His ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Make feedback timely

According to UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Shlomo Benartzi, “When it comes to using feedback to alter people’s behaviour, we have a very limited temporal window – if it’s not there when we need it, then it probably won’t work.”

It has been found, for example, that signs displaying ‘your speed’ reduce speeds by up to 10% on average simply by giving people live feedback on their driving in that moment.

Know what ‘better’ looks like

You must be able to describe what better performance looks like.

In Think Small, by Owain Service and Rory Gallagher, the authors make the point that feedback has long been recognised as an effective tool for changing behaviour and helping people achieve their goals.

However, good feedback, they say, is not just about knowing where you stand – it’s also about understanding what actions you can take to do even better. It’s also about recognising what is possible by understanding how others are doing in relation to you.

Help them plan the change

You should help staff plan the change and agree the actions that need to be taken. Helping people to make plans can increase their likelihood of following through on intentions, according to research by Nickerson and Rogers.

Don’t send people away to figure it out for themselves.

Don’t be deflected

Be ready to deal with different reactions – the potential range can be summed up in three words: mad, sad, glad. Someone doesn’t accept your feedback: they argue, disagree and dismiss what you’re saying, or they go silent – all variations of mad.

Realise that they may react like this no matter how well or how sensitively you deliver the feedback.

Someone may become emotional and shed a tear because they’re upset and disappointed, leading you to minimise: “Ah look, it’s only a small thing and sure isn’t everything else going really well…”

You cannot be deflected – take a break, and when you resume you will calmly go through it again.

Highlight ongoing progress

When you see progress, you must encourage it. A simple study of loyalty cards in coffee shops showed that a card already pre-stamped with two points significantly outperformed a blank card as it made people feel that they were already making progress towards the target of a free cup of coffee.

Always encourage

Encouragement is a piece of magic. It reinforces the importance and commitment to people’s progress, ultimately helping the individual to grow both professionally and personally.

With these tips, you may not end up with a knighthood like Sir Alex, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are coaching people to be the best they can be.

Donal Cronin is a director at Carr Communications, which recently launched a behavioural economics and sciences unit.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.

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