Thursday, October 16, 2008

Communicating With Workers - A New Concept?

In an article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Brittany Hite wrote about the differences in giving feedback to younger workers as compared to older workers (Employers Rethink How They Give Feedback). In the article, Ms. Hite presents six points to remember when giving feedback to Gen Y employees:
  • Avoid surprises by giving feedback on a continual basis instead of waiting for the annual performance review;
  • Be clear on expectations, especially when discussing a new task;
  • Listen and make sure the feedback is given through open dialogue;
  • Keep it loose and informal;
  • Discuss what you’ve learned from them;
  • Keep notes to make the feedback sessions more constructive.
While it’s commendable to see the WSJ provide this type of information to managers in the business world, it is a shame that these steps are presented only in the context of dealing with younger workers. We have gotten so far away from understanding the basic responsibilities of management that we think wanting open and constructive communication within the workplace is something new. Do people actually believe that it is acceptable for a manager to not communicate to older workers in this way? If there is a difference between the two generations of workers, it is in the expectations. After years of working for American companies and receiving little or no consistent or constructive feedback, older workers have most likely lowered their expectations in order to survive.

The writer goes on to say, “Increased demand for feedback from younger workers is forcing some employers to rethink how they discuss employee performance review. Often, the annual review just won’t cut it anymore.” Guess what? The annual performance review has never “cut it.” It doesn’t matter which generation the worker is from – people need continual communication and feedback in order to develop and improve. Waiting for the once-per-year meeting to talk with a team member, although a common practice in the U.S., is just bad management.

Too often, people are promoted to management positions because of financial knowledge and/or technical skills instead of leadership abilities. If someone performs well in the position they are in, it is assumed that they are promotable into management. And once a person is put into a management position, developing his or her skills as a leader becomes a low priority. As a result, poor communication becomes the norm and the organization and people who work there, stagnate.

Continual feedback and coaching has always been an essential responsibility of a manager. Success in management comes when the manager makes the people on his or her team successful. It is impossible to do this without continual communication and clarity on expectations. Waiting for the annual performance review to do this is illogical and ineffective.

I had a conversation fairly recently with the CEO of a mid-sized U.S. company. Since he is nearing retirement, he and the Board are looking for someone to replace him. He proceeded to tell me the main characteristics for the type of person he is looking for and not one had anything to do with leadership capability. If leadership competency is not important at the top of the organization, there is little chance that it will exist at any other level.

If the information in the article is the result of younger workers demanding that managers fulfill their responsibilities as leaders by coaching and developing team members, then I encourage these younger workers to keep up the pressure. We desperately need a revolution in management practices in this country and it may take the unrelenting energy of younger workers to make it happen.

And a note to any young professionals who may be reading this . . . please remember all of this when it is your turn to enter the management ranks. Remember how important feedback and coaching was to you and how you didn’t get enough of it when you were new to the workforce. I’m counting on you to save American companies from the death spiral that the traditional western approach to managing organizations has caused.

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