Some years ago an executive coaching client ‘George’ (not his real name) related to me a particularly difficult challenge he was facing. George was struggling because Sam (also not his real name – but you knew that didn’t you?) was failing in his role as a senior leader. When I asked George what the results were like in Sam’s group, he replied that they were exceeding plan. When I asked how that was possible, he replied that the role was so critical that he had been doing Sam’s job for him for some time.
George was faced with a problem: How do you deal with an underperforming leader when their objective results are strong – even if you know that they are not the reason those results are strong. In other words, your feedback is Subjective rather than Objective, and could be viewed as your opinion.
In some cases you can show an employee that objective performance metrics are not where they need to be. That is not to say that they will always agree on their performance being the cause of the metric being less than desirable – but at least you have a solid starting point for the conversation. Note: For more information on handling these type of conversations see How to Avoid Defensiveness When Providing Feedback and Can You Really Get Someone to Change.
Even in the case of incontrovertible objective evidence, leaders are often unable, or unwilling, to see the connection between their operational results and their own leadership skills and/or behavior.
The Solution: You Have to Make Your Subjective Feedback Objective
Since so many of our coaching conversations revolve around subjective feedback, we created a process called Making the Subjective Objective™. Let’s use an example to show how it works:
One of your supervisors is having difficulty driving operational results. You can see that he is not engaging in effective coaching behaviors. Instead, he seems to take great pride in solving operational issues himself. This is lowering overall morale and engagement level in the team. Since he can only be in one place at a time, response times have extended and problems seem to pile up. This has caused him to complain about not being able to find skilled and hard working employees. You have tried to broach the subject of improving his coaching skills but he feels that he is already a pretty good coach.
In this case there is a mismatch between his perception of his skill level and what you believe his skill level to be. In other words – your feedback is subjective in nature.
Try Making the Subjective Objective™
Ask the supervisor to rate their coaching skill from zero to ten. Note: We use zero because no one can confuse that with a good score.
If the supervisor gives himself rates anywhere from zero to eight, they are indicating that there is a possibility that they could improve. The challenge we fall into here is that we get hung up on the rating being correct – at least in our opinion. This desire for a correct score misses the point. What we want is for them to acknowledge there is a GAP between where they are and where they could be. So if they think they are a 7, and you think they are a 2; who cares? They have admitted that there is an opportunity for growth. So don’t get hung up
Once they have admitted there is a GAP and therefore there is an opportunity for growth – ask “What would a 10 look like?”
In some cases they may have some ideas of where they could improve. In other cases you may have to provide some ideas for them. In either case you have an opportunity to ask them to commit to those changes.
But what if they rate themselves a 9 or a 10?
This is the tougher scenario. Even a 9 is a 10 in disguise – they just did not want to seem arrogant. In this case, you have to have a candid conversation with them that you do not believe that their evaluation is correct. In some scenarios the person may never have worked for someone that has been willing to give them candid feedback, and while painful, your feedback could be a critical step in their career development. In other cases it may may a case of a lack of humility. And humility is one of the hardest traits to coach – and that will have to wait for another day!