Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

Giving performance feedback with the employee in mind. [Interview]

An interview with Nicole Davies, Vice President of Learning, Talent, and Performance at Valet Living, explores ways to navigate the performance feedback process, taking the manager’s ego out of the picture, rethinking how we view the performance improvement plan, and the skill gap versus will gap.


Giving performance feedback to employees can be difficult. What do you say, how do you say it, when do you say it? You may give straightforward feedback every time you notice a performance issue within your team. Maybe you wait a week or two to see if it naturally works itself out, and if it doesn't then you take a slower, more methodical approach. And maybe you only offer performance feedback a few times a year, or when you're told by HR to get on it. There are so many possibilities here and I could go on and on because this topic is so rich, so full of voices who have written or talked about performance.

To narrow it down to one voice in this episode, I interviewed Nicole Davies, Vice President of Learning, Talent, and Performance at Valet Living. Throughout the interview, Nicole talks about ways to navigate the performance feedback process, taking the manager’s ego out of the picture, rethinking how we view the performance improvement plan, and the skill gap versus will gap.



Some employees don't realize, embrace, or live up to their performance potential. So the overall question is, how can people managers coach team members who those managers believe aren't performing to their top or best standards?

You know, it's a great question, and I think it really has two pieces to it. It has the manager view and then the associate or employee perspective. I think the first thing that manager should do and can do when they start to question someone's performance is to figure out by what gauge. You know, what are they using to gauge performance? Is it their understanding of success, is it an institutionalized value of success? Do we have really clearly defined outcomes of what success actually looks like?

If there aren't those, which there aren't in many workplaces. I mean, there's a lot of avenues to get to a win in most companies. Asking the manager how much of me is wrapped up in the way that I want to see a person doing something. So just removing yourself as the manager, or taking the ego out of any expectation you have around someone’s performance. Making sure that you are allowing room for the creativity and the personalized success pathway that each associate may choose to take.

I don't know if that makes sense, but really trying to pull yourself out of the middle of the equation and focusing it more directly on the associate. Then, I think once you are able to do that kind of self-analysis, self-awareness, the other piece of it is to really think about the associate. How have we given the associate the opportunity or the employee the opportunity to really understand clearly the expectations, and what are their understandings of their performance?

So having conversations with them that are more asking then telling. Giving them an opportunity to answer questions like, "Where do you feel like you add the most value in the work that we do here? When do you feel like you're performing at your personal best?" You know, "What are the ways in which we can help you to be successful in achieving your goals?" Allowing the associate to feel like they're put in the center of the conversation, and not being told what is needed of them but instead being asked and encouraged to participate in reaching a mutually acceptable outcome.

Right, so giving that associate a chance to be center to their process. I think the other piece, and it's not again new knowledge or rocket science, is really giving the individual an opportunity to hear what they are doing well, and being able to celebrate those opportunities. You know, we've all heard that if we give folks opportunities to hear over and over again that they're not meeting expectations or potentially failing, that the brain has that fight or flight response. It starts to literally shut down. It starts to feel like bad news is coming, so let me pull together all the forces, batten down the hatches, because I don't want to hear what's coming next.

But, if we can create that environment, take away the fear, get to the system that allows people to hear, "Hey, let's call out those times when you have been super successful. Let's talk about the times when we've seen excellence in your performance. How can we continue to take that branch that's already formed and put new buds on the limb to create new opportunities to continue to do the work that you do well already and more of it in the organization."

Then, we don't have that amygdala response, the reptilian brain kicking in, and we've created an opportunity for that associate to just feel like they have a chance to continue to thrive and to succeed, demonstrating the types of things that they've already done well within the organization.

For me I think it's, again, clear feedback but not unkind feedback. Giving folks opportunities to really be able to hear if there are clearly defined expectations what those are. Creating an environment where the associate does have a chance to respond, and participate in the pathway to get there. Being careful about not having those fear, reactive-based unkind feelings generating within the individual, so that they can continue to deliver on the things that they already do super well. Then, giving them constant opportunities to evaluate and inspect.

Don't just have it be a one-off conversation and when you start to see, you know, potentially that behavior heading down the right path that you just check out on them. Come back around and say, "Hey Nicole, we noticed last week, or I was in a conversation with you last week where I saw you do X, and I saw the client respond by doing Y, and that was fantastic because of Z." So giving that person opportunities over and over again to hear of those micro-successes that he or she may be having so that they can continue on that pathway.


One thing that you said that was pretty interesting, I'd never heard it framed in that way before, was for managers to kind of take their ego out. To pull their selves kind of out of the equation. What suggestions would you give to managers who may have difficulties with that, or maybe not even be aware that they're bringing their ego too much possibly into their teams?

Yeah, I mean I think that's the constant, it's the constant goal of a manager to make sure that the team isn't just being an evolving version of that manager. Isn't just doing as the manager would do for him or herself, but again bringing alternate voices to the conversation.

Asking the manager what are my expectations of this particular associate, or for this role. What a success look like. What are the pathways by which success could be accomplished, and do I have preconceived notions about what it would take to get it done, or how to get it done? Am I willing to accept something that may not already be in my purview of what is reasonable performance? If I hear a totally alternate voice, how am I going to adjust and flex myself to be able to allow that voice to be heard?


Have you seen or noticed any tactics or strategies that managers have used to kind of increase their acceptance? If someone is either resistant to hearing others ideas, or just to kind of as a test of their own like, am I an accepting manager? What could they do as their own test in their teams?

You know, I think there's just a lot of good that comes from bouncing those ideas off of mentors or buddies, so taking a chance to partner with a peer in your organization and to say, "You know, hey, I'm really struggling with trying to motivate someone on my team, and these are the boundaries that I'm hitting or these are the barriers that I'm encountering. Let me roleplay with you a couple of ways in which I can have this conversation and see how I can create the environment that's most accepting of somebody else's voice besides mine."

I think having a person in your organization that you can try things on with is super important. Acceptance is one of those ooey-gooey middle kind of things, like it's hard to put your finger on, and I think in general, you know I'm sure you've seen all the studies out there in the world that say we're really unreliable raters of kind of those leadership competencies. Like, what is having a strategic mindset mean? Really hard for us to wrap our head around here's a scale of one to five and we can all standardize around that scale, and I think acceptance is that too.

Like, it's really hard to get to an acceptable understanding of here's what good management looks like if I'm being an accepting and inclusive manager and welcoming other ideas, and here's what it isn't. I think it's going to be just a trial and error process to a certain degree, and creating an environment where your associates can tell you what is working for them or not working for them. Asking lots of questions and not giving answers.


Something you said about the associates or the team members perspective, that they may kind of shut down from negativity. That flight or fight response. What could managers do to test whether they're potentially doing that in their teams? Either that they're bringing too much negativity, or to see if perhaps their team members are responding in a way because the team members are picking up, "Oh, it's going to be negative again, why even bother trying to improve."

Yeah. Asking the question. Just putting yourself out there, owning the fact that you don't want to create an environment where your voice is the only voice that's heard. You don't want to surround yourself with people who are just not even smiling, because they feel like there's only the one way, and it's that leader’s way. Just creating opportunities to receive that honest, as I like to call it the honest mirror from your associates. To where that persons holding it up and saying, "This is how I'm perceiving what you're asking, is this really what you mean, or is this what you intend for this experience to be like?"

Creating enough of an environment where you as a humble leader are willing to allow those individuals on your team to be able to speak to you openly and honestly without any fear of reprisal. To be able to not have to worry about, you know, I'm going to be in trouble if I'm not honest with Nicole about how I perceive her as a leader.


You mentioned a term honest mirror. Even beyond say performance improvement, employee development, how do you think managers could best hold up the honest mirror to themselves. What they could think about or ask either themselves or others to make that mirror the most honest it could be.

I think it's just, again, those same things that we talked about with the associate, you know. What does success look like for me, and what is my pathway to get there, and how will I know that I've been successful? When I've reached my goal point how will I know if I've really reached the finish line that I was hoping for, or if I've fallen short on the overall goal.

To me it's just really that chance to be able to say, "I look at me and I see warrior, I see innovator, I see change agent." Are those really the characteristics that I want to put out there in the world, or are those true? Are those the honest and true characteristics that really represent how I show up in my work everyday?

Again, just finding that system, finding those people that you can have that checks and balances with to say, "This is how I feel like I'm showing up here, is that how you're perceiving me, or is there some other view of me that I'm not necessarily seeing because I bought that mirror that really makes me look pretty in all lights rather than that one that, you know, kind of shows you the harsh you that you may really need to get your mind wrapped around."


Would you recommend a performance improvement plan for those associates, those team members who the managers believe aren't performing to their best? If so, what might that look like? Or, is performance improvement plan not the best word for how you like to approach those kind of topics?

Personally I'm not a fan of a performance improvement plan. To me, I feel like let's set near-term goals. Let's not even talk about what does improvement really mean, so let's just make it more simple than that. Let's get down to the basics. Over the next three weeks, what is it that we can mutually agree upon that would advance you to a place where you feel like you've been successful in your role, you know. It's less about trying to have the company impose upon an individual, here's the gates you have to overcome, here's the barriers that you have to climb over. Instead working with that associate to really set goals that he or she can believe in, one, and feel are achievable, two.

Really taking it more from that perspective. I mean, is it ultimately hopefully going to improve performance? Yeah. But, do we need the rigor of a 30-day plan that's been designed probably in isolation of the associate by a manager and maybe human resources and then given to that person and told it's this or else. I just believe that there's a better way, and that it's a more inclusive process that partners alongside with the associate. Not spread out over a time period that's unachievable, but giving them goals that they feel really good about that are within line of sight, and something that they can easily be able to say, "Yeah, okay, within the next 30 days I do think that that's a reasonable thing to accomplish."

Or, you know, "The next two weeks I do think that I can accomplish this." A 90-day plan feels huge if you think about it. If your job, if your back’s up against the wall and you're worried your job is on the line, what does 90 days feel like to you? But, if it's, "Hey, over the next two weeks I'd really like for us to work on achieving this win in your work." How much more likely are you to buy into that?


It sounds like you prefer a more integrated, inclusive perspective in terms of managing employee performance and development. With that in mind, do you see any trends, are you excited for the future of how that kind of performance feedback, employee development, might go?

I am. I mean, I think that we've been missing putting the associate or employee center in the process forever. The process has always been more about the company needs and the manager's desires than it has been about the heart and mind of the associate. Now that we're moving towards this process of a conversation that's happening alongside each other, instead of I'm going to just throw the ball over the fence or the grenade or whatever you want to say, and the associate has to try and catch it and run with it, you know is just the right direction and a welcome change in the way that we view performance.

The only other thing that I talk about a lot with our leaders is identifying if it's skill gap or will gap. Sometimes they get confused. They become jumbled in a leaders mind, and I think if I have an associate who’s under-performing that it might be clearly this person doesn't want to be here, or this person isn't motivated, or this person doesn't have the desire to do the work that we have. It might be a skill gap, so it might just be that they don't have the right tools. Being honest with yourself about have you given the associate everything he or she needs to be successful.

Do they have all the training, do they have all the resources that they need? Do they have the right level of exposure to you or to a buddy or to someone else that might be able to be helpful to them? Really taking a look at is, are all the skills fully developed in the associate that we need? Then if you identify yes, those boxes are checked, then the question becomes more one of will, which again is a harder, more difficult thing to standardize. It's not as check-listy as something that can be defined of, you know, has Nicole gone through the 60 days of mandatory training to learn how they use X-system. Yes she has, boom, check, skill complete.

Will is more “am I willing to do the work, am I willing to put in the time, am I willing to be a player on this team?” That will conversation is a totally different thing. Coaching around will is not easy. You can't, doesn't matter how many times I hold you accountable. I can't create a feeling of accountability in you. You have to want to be accountable for the work. I can't create those checklists and say, "Does Nicole now have all the will to do the job?"

That's not something we can coach towards. It's being able to differentiate where does the gap live, asking the right kind of questions to identify if the associate understands where the gap is, and if so creating a plan to address it. Then not trying to, again, own that all on the shoulders of the leader. If it's a will gap we've got to make sure that the associate or employee is engaged in that process, too.



As a recap of this episode, Nicole talked about how managers can coach team members to realize their performance potential. This involves taking into account both your perspective as a manager as well as your direct report’s perspective. For managers you need to figure out what you're using to gauge performance, as well as reduce bias from that process by taking your ego out. Nicole had a great point of making sure the team isn't just an evolving version of you, the manager.

From the team members’ perspectives, you should make sure they understand their performance expectations. During performance conversations, ask them more than you tell them. Be accommodating by allowing employees to be in the center of those conversations, rather than just telling them where they're lacking.

I especially liked Nicole's thoughts about the skill gap versus will gap. It's so easy to automatically assume that an employee is under-performing because they're simply unwilling to perform. That they don't want to be there or put in the effort. That allows you as a manager to push and offload responsibility onto the employee, rather than you being more constructive and owning some of that under-performance.

The constructive path is to first view under-performance as a skill gap. Something that you can help support through training and resources. Then, if you determine it's not a skill gap to ask, don't assume, ask, what's potentially holding that employee back from performing at a higher level.

And that's it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I'll discuss the dark side of job roles.

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