Project Management Institute

Room for improvement

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BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY

Properly delivered, negative feedback can be surprisingly positive.

of us have little difficulty delivering praise for a job well done. Administering a dressing-down is an entirely different matter, though. It's just not a pleasant experience. Yet sidestepping negative feedback is only going to cause more problems as team members take the lack of reprisal as implicit approval.

Instead, try to tackle issues as they happen.

“Timing is critical,” says Didier Brackx, PMP, senior project manager at USG People International, an employment resourcing agency in Ghent, Belgium. “Don't give feedback two or three months after the event. Do it at the time. Choose your moment, certainly, but do it when memories are fresh and the facts undisputed.”

Timing can also determine how the comments are received.

“Give feedback too late, and it runs the risk of being perceived as reactive—given as a response when things go bad, rather than as a coaching moment,” says Scott Spreier, a Boston, Massachusetts, USA-based senior consultant at advisory firm Hay Group's McClelland Center for Innovation and Research.

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Don't give feedback two or three months after the event. Do it at the time. Choose your moment, certainly, but do it when memories are fresh and the facts undisputed.

—Didier Brackx, PMP, USG People International, Ghent, Belgium

LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

No matter how incorrigible the behavior, project managers should be aware of the risks in jumping to conclusions. Take the time to drill down to the root causes of why team members might be under-performing. Before antagonizing them with a barrage of criticism, remember that everyone slips up occasionally.

“Even the best team members make mistakes,” says Mark Westcombe, a program director in project management at Lancaster University Management School, Lancaster, England. “So it's important to ask yourself, ‘Is a single mistake representative of their typical performance? And are there factors which might explain it—inadequate training, stress, excessive workload or problems with their home life?’ You have to look beyond the symptoms and identify the underlying cause.”

Project managers should also be open to the possibility of genuine misunderstandings, particularly if the individual in question normally performs well.

“Most times, it's not full-on insubordination or laziness that's the problem,” says Andrew Wicklander, PMP, chief executive of project management consulting firm Ideal Project Group, Chicago, Illinois, USA. “Usually it's people overly focusing on something that they particularly wanted to do or they've prioritized tasks in a different way.”

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

It's going to be a lot easier to spot exactly where employees have gone off track if you have a solid outline of roles and responsibilities in place.

And that brings up the thorny question of determining the benchmarks against which performance is measured: What elements of a team member's performance are being discussed? How high is the bar? And do all team members get evaluated in the same way?

Number-crunching can play a role, but traditional metrics only go so far.

“Schedule and budget are useful indicators, but project success is really more about successful outcomes and results, quality and fitness for purpose, especially for the end-user or client,” says Elissa Farrow, director of the portfolio and program office in the Queensland Government's Department of Communities, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Because team members seldom work in isolation, a variety of different factors can influence their performance, including the collective group temperament.

TIP It's up to companies to establish an environment where people feel comfortable providing praise and criticism.

“At the highest level, the leadership of the organization should create a culture that encourages people to both give and receive feedback—and show them why this is important,” says Mirian Zacareli, Net Expat, São Paulo, Brazil.

“The values and mission stated by the company are not enough if they only appear on stationery and on bulletin boards hung on the walls in the reception area.”

“It's not just about getting over the line if the carnage left behind is the team,” says Ms. Farrow, who also runs a coaching and transition management consulting firm. “The role of the program or project manager is to facilitate a cohesive team environment where the team commits to the vision of the change initiative. Interpersonal dynamics are an important part of team wellness, and feeding back on how people perform in this regard is very valid.”

And the higher up the person is, the higher the expectations.

“While you'll often measure senior and junior people in the same way from a technical perspective, the interpersonal area is where different standards need to apply,” says Ms. Farrow. “Senior team members might have a de facto leadership role, taking on responsibility for a broader interpersonal or team collaboration role—and should be measured as to how effectively they discharge that responsibility.”

ALL IN THE DELIVERY

What you say while giving negative feedback is important, but so is how you say it.

“Avoid the appearance of criticism,” says Mr. Brackx. “Couch your feedback as a learning opportunity: ‘Here's something that you can do much better— and here's how to do it better.’ It comes over much more positively and will be received much better.”

Concrete examples help, too. Team members will not only have a tougher time flatly denying culpability, they'll walk away with a clearer idea of which behaviors need changing.

“It's better to say, ‘You interrupted me three times in that meeting,’ rather than, ‘You are rude and aggressive,’” says Steven Polak, account director, Berkshire Consultancy Ltd., Reading, England.

Rewards on Limited Resources

Feedback doesn't always have to be negative, of course. When people do a stellar job, they deserve a little something. The good news—especially these days—is that it doesn't have to break the bank. Sometimes, it's even free.

“The most effective reward is recognition and appreciation—preferably in front of colleagues,” says Didier Brackx, PMP, USG People International, Ghent, Belgium.

And although a big, old cash bonus is always nice, project leaders can opt for cheaper “trophies,” such as T-shirts, mugs, movie tickets or even a little time off.

It helps to make it a bit of a production. To commemorate the close of a time-crunched initiative to set up a project management office (PMO) with borrowed resources, Barbara A. Fuller, PMP, added a few extra flourishes.

“At a company all-hands meeting, we took time out to print up some certificates beforehand. As we called people forward, you could sense some puzzlement as to what all these folks had in common. Secretaries, statisticians, project people—it was a real mix,” says Ms. Fuller, president of Process and Project Solutions, Somerset, New Jersey, USA.

“And the answer was that they'd all worked on the PMO. Many of them, such as the secretaries, were people who wouldn't otherwise get much public recognition. We'd cut a deal with a local pizza place and with a meal allowance of US$10 a person, we took everyone to lunch. It made a real difference but cost very little,” she recalls.

Even the smallest gestures can go a long way.

“Public recognition in front of peers gives the individual a great sense of self-worth and is priceless in terms of ongoing motivation,” adds Iggy Pintado, ConnectGen, Sydney, Australia.

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The most constructive criticism is honest feedback delivered in a personalized fashion.

—Iggy Pintado, CEO, ConnectGen, Sydney, Australia

“The most constructive criticism is honest feedback delivered in a personalized fashion,” says Iggy Pintado, CEO of coaching and mentoring consultancy ConnectGen, Sydney, Australia.

He offers a three-step process for structuring a feedback session:

1. Start with the positives. Talk about what's working well in terms of attitude, behavior and capability—both as an individual and as a team member.

2. Head into the areas for improvement. These shouldn't be framed as negatives or as weaknesses, but as a recount of situations where the project could have progressed more efficiently and effectively.

3. Leave time for a rebuttal. “There should be an opportunity for the individual to respond to the first two parts,” Mr. Pintado says. “From the individual team member's perspective, the act of being listened to makes them feel part of the process, which in turn makes the feedback more conducive to being accepted as a fair assessment of performance.”

To avoid creating a hostile environment, project managers may want to try a technique called contracting, says Susan Hodgkinson, executive leadership development coach and principal at The Personal Brand Co., Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

The basic idea is to make the team member feel like they're part of the process.

“In effect, you're asking the other person's permission to give the feedback, which reinforces respect on both sides,” says Ms. Hodgkinson. “A phrase such as, ‘I had some thoughts about how you could do this better— may I have your permission to share them with you?’ helps to align both people around the issue, as opposed to transforming one of them into the aggressor and the other into an unwilling participant.”

>>Listen to a podcast on PMI.org/pmnetwork for tips on how to reward team members—even on a tight budget.

Project managers should steer clear of any overly emotional appeals—and realize that criticism cuts both ways.

They “must be able to give and receive feedback that is always based on concrete facts, not on interpretations,” says Mirian Zacareli, senior consultant and executive coach at Net Expat, São Paulo, Brazil.

Admittedly, delivering criticism is more art than science, but done right, not only will your team members perform better, your projects will, too.

Otherwise, there could be some negative feedback heading your way. PM

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 FEBRUARY 2010 WWW.PMI.ORG
FEBRUARY 2010 PM NETWORK

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