Project Management Institute

Positive response

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BEST OF CONGRESS PAPERS

BY SUSAN LADIKA

When the boss calls someone in to talk, there's usually only one thought racing through that person's mind: What did I do wrong?

It shouldn't be that way.

Positive feedback can be just as important as negative feedback—if not more so.

“Giving feedback, good and bad, is a very important part of the project management toolkit … but it's very underutilized,” says Rubin Jen, PMP, unit lead at Accenture in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Yet the only way for team members to improve their performance is to know what they're doing well and not so well. And it's up to project leaders to provide that critique—carefully.

Feedback may be aimed at rectifying errors and initiating change, but unless it's delivered effectively it can “crush morale, decrease performance and maintain the status quo,” Mr. Jen says.

SOONER, NOT LATER

Project leaders should be prepared to discuss issues as they arise. For example, if a team member is consistently late for meetings, the manager should pull him or her aside and explain how that behavior is impacting the project and the team. Delaying the conversation for more than a few days will lessen the impact of what you need to communicate, Mr. Jen says.

QUICK BITES

Learning to provide effective feedback takes time—and a certain skill. Rubin Jen, PMP, from Accenture offers some tips:

img Give feedback on a regular basis. For the person on the receiving end, it helps take fear out of the process and reduce stress.

img Talk one on one. Holding individual meetings builds a closer relationship and provides a more comfortable forum for employees to speak out.

img Let the employee talk. A project manager might have one impression of what's taking place, but team members may have their own take.

For short-term projects of six months or less, project managers often wait until the work is wrapped up before providing any criticism, if they do so at all. The typical mindset is that “it's more trouble than it's worth,” he says.

But if managers don't speak up when issues arise, poor performance can continue and hurt the standing of both projects and teams. “Word travels around,” he says. “People don't want a reputation building behind their back.”

Feedback has to be continuous and given out before things get ugly.

“If you do not keep the team directed, you may find that most project managers are doing too much yelling because the process has already failed,” says Ralph Cali, senior project manager at Horizon Project Advisors LLC, a construction management firm in New York, New York, USA.

As the project progresses, managers should “review and provide feedback for every deliverable,” Mr. Cali says. “You're not looking to point fingers. You're looking at how to fix [problems].”

That means project leaders can't wait around for annual performance reviews. “As a professional, I need to have feedback frequently,” says André Augusto Choma, PMP, a partner and consultant at project management consultancy Euax Gestão de Projetos, Joinville, Brazil.

One of the most effective ways to ensure team members are getting the feedback they need is to hold regular meetings.

Mr. Choma schedules weekly or biweekly gatherings to discuss project progress and team performance. At least every other month he also sits down one-on-one with each team member to discuss his or her expectations, what that person is doing right, what needs improvement and how that can be accomplished.

Mr. Jen is another proponent of holding regular one-on-one meetings, especially in the beginning. He advocates giving “80 percent of the feedback during the earlier stages of the project.” That requires meeting weekly at first, then scaling it back to every two weeks, and eventually decreasing meetings to once a month.

During individual sessions, Mr. Jen not only provides feedback but also asks team members to “say what's on their mind and communicate any accomplishments.”

TIP Everyone could use a little feedback—but younger team members seem to especially crave it.

In the United States, in particular, many of those under 30 were lavished with praise and attention from their parents, says Cindy Ventrice, principal at Potential Unlimited, a management consultancy in Santa Cruz, California, USA and author of Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works [Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003]. And even though they're all grown up now, many younger workers have brought their demands for attention with them into the workplace. “They're not looking for a big, formal reward,” she says. “They just want comments to let them know they are going in the right direction.”

As the project progresses, project leaders can trim back the amount of time they devote to each team member. Mr. Jen estimates he initially spends roughly 30 minutes per session with each individual and gradually drops down to about 15 minutes or less, depending on the comfort level of both parties.

If something important comes up, though, Mr. Jen talks to the team member as soon as possible, rather than waiting for their next scheduled session.

NEGATIVE IN A POSITIVE WAY

Although providing positive feedback is certainly important, sometimes project leaders have to go negative.

Mr. Cali recalls a time when he gave a poor appraisal to a project manager not performing up to par. The employee was very upset, nearly to the point of tears, but Mr. Cali explained he wasn't trying to be hurtful, but rather to help the person's career.

Later the project manager came to him and said, “That was the best review I ever got. You were right on the money.”

“You don't necessarily tell people what they want to hear. You tell them what's right,” Mr. Cali says. “That's the way for people to grow and get better.”

If a manager has something difficult to say, it always helps to rehearse it in advance. A poor delivery can make the situation worse than it was to begin with, Mr. Jen says.

He recalls an instance where he had to deliver negative feedback to an individual known for being argumentative. So before the evaluation he practiced what he wanted to say. “If I hadn't been prepared, I would have lost my cool.”

In the review, the individual blew up—ranting and raving for more than an hour. But because he had expected that reaction, Mr. Jen was able to remain calm, stick to the facts and lay out various examples outlining his concerns. Although the person continued to disagree, “I felt my message had been communicated,” Mr. Jen says.

And therein may lie the greatest challenge for project managers.

“Everybody knows that projects are executed by people, and many managers are not trained to deal with people,” Mr. Choma says. “We are technicians. We are good at building a schedule, at making a cost estimate, but we have serious difficulties managing people and setting expectations. The greatest number of problems I faced in projects were not caused by technical problems, but by relationship and communication problems. That's why I think giving effective feedback should be one of the highest priorities of every organization.” PM

This article is based on the paper “How to Provide Effective Feedback to Team Members” presented by Rubin Jen, PMP, at the PMI Global Congress 2007—Latin America in Cancún, Mexico

This article is based on the paper “How to Provide Effective Feedback to Team Members” presented by Rubin Jen, PMP, at the PMI Global Congress 2007—Latin America in Cancún, Mexico.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK SEPTEMBER 2008 WWW.PMI.ORG
SEPTEMBER 2008 PM NETWORK

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