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Does it Take Courage To Give Feedback?

by CAPT John E. Williams, MSO Wilmington

During the 1999 National Naval Officers Association conference in Norfolk, Va., several Coast Guard junior officers expressed concern and disappointment with commands that did not give them the opportunity to see their performance evaluation before the report was mailed out. The worst case scenario, according to these JOs, is when they are being transferred and have to wait 12 to 16 weeks to get a copy of their end-of-tour evaluation in the mail. By that time, the JO has been transferred and, in many cases, so have one or two of the people who wrote the report. Some officers stated they were unaware their performance was marginal or below expectations until they received a copy of their Officer Evaluation Report in the mail. These JOs ended up feeling extremely suspicious of their supervisors and abandoned and deceived by a command that lacked the courage to show them their evaluations.

Should the Coast Guard require that commands show officers their performance evaluations, as they do for enlisted members and civilians?

One school of thought is that if the Coast Guard requires an evaluator to show and discuss an evaluation, the evaluator will be less inclined to prepare an accurate assessment of an individual’s performance. This perspective is based on human nature, which has a natural hesitancy or unwillingness to deal with disagreement or to give bad news.

But I suggest another point of view — good leaders must have the courage to face conflict constructively, use effective communication to manage performance, and articulate performance expectations to subordinates. This perspective is in line with the Coast Guard’s 21 leadership competencies. It supports the idea that if performance expectations are established and counseling is taking place during the reporting period, then performance evaluations (good or bad) should not be a surprise.

The role of leadership entails having the courage to lead by example. Those in leadership positions are expected to inspire and motivate others with their own behaviors, attitudes, skills and confidence. As members of the Coast Guard, we pride ourselves in actions that meet the highest professional and moral standards. We can’t tell our people we care about them and then act as if we don’t. We should not buy off on the human nature school of thought as justification for a lack of courage and commitment to our subordinates. Instead, we should set a higher standard and then hold leaders accountable and responsible.

Inspirational leadership cannot take place if the leader lacks the confidence to have face-to-face discussions in the often-stressful situation of performance appraisal meetings. This behavior cheats the subordinate whose performance is in question and sends a strong message to the staff that this is acceptable leadership.

The only thing worse than a person who knows he or she is doing a bad job, is a person who is doing a bad job but thinks it’s a good job. If Coast Guard supervisors accept the responsibility of preparing a subordinate’s performance evaluation, they must also be expected (or required) to show and discuss it with the subordinate. Anything less is a leadership failure.

Suggestions for Effective Counseling
  • Don’t wait until “the next time it happens” to conduct a counseling session. This usually results in an unfocused discussion complicated by strong emotions.
  • Choose a neutral, private location free from interruptions. You may also want to time your discussion for late in the day if you expect the session to be hard on the employee. He or she can go home afterwards instead of back to work.
  • Start counseling sessions on a positive note, pointing out strong areas and successes. Ask the individual to comment first in areas where he or she might see room for improved performance.
  • Early in the session, explain the specific problem that prompted the meeting. However, refrain from making it a history of failures and shortcomings.
  • Don’t say something like “your performance is unsatisfactory.” This immediately puts the person on the defensive. Any additional counseling will fall on deaf ears.
  • Express your desired outcome. It’s best if you state your objective(s) in behavioral terms; i.e., a goal you can see, hear, feel, smell or taste. For example, instead of saying you want improved customer relations, state behaviors that indicate this, such as phone calls answered within three rings, friendly greetings given to customers or prompt responses given to customer requests.
  • Be prepared to explain to the employee how your objective relates to the mission. People are much more likely to buy into an action if they understand its relevance and importance.
  • Be assertive rather than accusatory. Accusations distract the discussion away from the goal of the counseling session. Future action is what you should be focused on, not past failures. Use assertive statements such as “Make sure all your reports are on my desk no later than close of business on the day they are due.”
  • Don’t compare one individual with another. This alienates the employee. Instead, give specifics on how to improve the work.
  • Be aware of obstacles. If you notice someone’s performance or attitude has taken a nosedive, make every effort to find out why. Ask the member if he or she was aware of the performance expectation(s) that is not being satisfied. Is something going on at the office? Does the member have the skills to perform? Many workplace problems stem from off-work sources. Ask the person if outside or home situations are becoming a distraction. Solve the problem, not the result of the problem.