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How to get your team back on track using formal feedback

If you're only using employee disciplinary tools as a step toward firing people, you are doing it wrong. Learn to use formal correction to build high-performing teams.

A written warning. An employee reprimand. A disciplinary action. A performance improvement plan. No matter what name these formal correction tools go by, they strike fear into the hearts of employees—and their managers.

No manager wants to start a disciplinary action for a team member. Yet, managers who avoid formal correction tools, hoping that problem employees improve on their own, do everyone a disservice. Teammates always notice, which leads the productive team members to become frustrated and leave while the poor performers stay.

Worse, when formal correction actions are used, it is only to terminate an employee in whom the manager has already lost faith. These formal correction practices are treated as a CYA way to “manage someone out of the organization” and reduce the risk of unfair termination lawsuits.

Both of these approaches miss the point of these powerful tools. When managers use formal correction correctly, it helps poor performers improve, gets employees on track, and builds high-performing teams.

The high-performers trap

If you're a manager who has always been a high performer, you may fall into the trap of believing that those who struggle are “not cut out to do the work.” If they could do the work, they would, and there would be no need for correction, right? This insidious attitude prevents you from giving team members a real chance to improve—because you don’t believe they actually can. This lack of belief shows in performance improvement plans (PIPs), action plans, and any “coaching” you give these employees. The attitude has an amazingly negative influence. Why should I try, the team members ask themselves, if I already know my manager believes I will fail?

Unfortunately, managers who haven’t experienced a formal correction firsthand usually find it difficult to empathize with those going through it. My own experience was difficult, but it taught me a great deal. That was because my boss understood how to use disciplinary tools to achieve positive outcomes.

You can turn this situation around with just a few simple changes. Here’s how to use correction to get the results you need.

Don't wait to begin

It’s easy to turn a blind eye toward staff problems, pretending that everything is fine, until a situation gets out of hand. This is often due to conflict avoidance, a common problem that plagues technical managers in particular.

However, waiting too long to offer feedback may make an employee feel blindsided when you do use it. In shock, the team member is unlikely to respond positively and may go on the defensive.

Likewise, waiting too long to use more formal correction tools is doubly unfair because it hides the issue’s severity. Everyone would prefer to help the employee correct a growing problem at an early stage.

Start with clear, informal feedback

Formal processes begin with informal ones. The first step in formal correction is making sure that early informal feedback is clear, honest, and actionable. Discuss issues not just once, but repeatedly. Set expectations clearly, instead of hinting and beating around the bush.

Before my boss initiated the formal correction process, we had discussed the issue at least 10 times. In my case, the problem was not that I didn't understand what he was asking me to do; rather, the problem was that I didn't want to do it. I had grown arrogant.

For an example of unclear feedback, consider a conversation I had with the CTO of a small startup:

CTO: “I’m frustrated that Jim’s code is rushed and sloppy. We need better quality from him.”

Me: “OK. What happened when you talked to him about it?"

CTO: "I haven't talked to him, but he should get the hint. I’ve been ignoring his messages and glaring at him all week. How could he not know I’m unhappy with his code?”

When you read it, it sounds silly. But that was what actually was happening.

Obviously, Jim had no chance of figuring out why the CTO was ignoring his messages and glaring. Jim could interpret the behavior in a multitude of ways, but he probably would not get the right message, much less improve his code quality. The CTO didn’t offer Jim any feedback he could use to improve—or even help Jim identify what was wrong.

There are plenty of books on how to give casual, productive feedback. ("Radical Candor," by Kim Scott, is a personal favorite.) While the purpose here is to discuss what to do when that hasn’t worked, my point is that you shouldn’t jump from “Read my mind” to “Here’s your PIP—I hope you have your resume in order.”

My boss didn’t use formal correction methods until his informal feedback failed to help me change my arrogant behavior and my certainty that I had no reason to change.

I’m eternally grateful that my manager never shied away from offering input and setting clear expectations. Without those, more formalized correction methods would not have worked.

Small steps, not giant leaps

Clear, informal feedback is a key step to helping someone improve and makes formal correction a small step rather than a giant leap. But when should you move from informal to formal methods, and how?

The short answer: after you have exhausted informal methods but before you lose all hope in the individual.

Discuss with your human resources department what steps are appropriate for informal correction, and then create a checklist for yourself. These methods may include:

  • Assume the employee is trying their best.
  • Candidly discuss the issue in private, and do so multiple times. Explore a win-win resolution with the employee. Explain why the behavior needs to change and the impact on the company from the existing behavior.
  • Discuss the root cause to understand what’s behind the problem. Have a collaborative discussion about environmental factors that may contribute to the problem.
  • Ask yourself if you have made all reasonable efforts to help the employee be successful.
  • Ask yourself whether the problem is a deal breaker or you can live with the behavior. If the former, clearly communicate that the problem must be resolved, either through the employee's improvement or termination. It cannot continue ad nauseum.
  • Express your expectations clearly, both verbally and in writing.
  • Create a private journal to document the details of your informal correction activities.
  • Decide how long you will use informal methods before escalating to formal correction actions. Communicate by setting a specific date to your team member.

Using these informal correction methods prevents your team members (not just the single employee) from feeling blindsided when you escalate to formal correction. These methods also give you confidence that you’re not having a knee-jerk reaction to a situation and that you’ve given the employee a fair chance to improve. 

The concept of fairness is important. Employees who feel they are not treated fairly may actively resist informal and formal correction activities. They may also find ways to disrupt the team, sabotage their projects, and create a toxic working environment. Finally, they may decide to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company. 

Your best defense against these outcomes is showing fairness and optimism. Just in case all those fail, keep detailed records of the steps you took to provide opportunities to improve.

Yet, if these methods have not resulted in improvement in a reasonable amount of time, it is time to use formal correction methods.

Informal vs. formal correction

Informal correction has the same goal as formal correction: helping a team member improve. So, what’s the difference?

Informal Correction

Formal Correction

Manager determines approach, progression, and time frame

HR may use predetermined steps and time frame

There is no official paperwork

Official paperwork is used

Discussions are informal

Paperwork and process is part of the employee’s official record

Communication about improvements are ad hoc

Structured tools are used to track improvement

Involves only the manager and the employee

Involves HR, multiple levels of management, and the employee

Set the right goals

Clear informal feedback often helps employees redirect their efforts, but sometimes it’s not enough. Many managers initiate formal correction only after they decide an employee must go. They miss the real power of these tools: to give employees structured opportunities to succeed.

If the only time you use formal correction tools is after you decide to fire someone, you’ve got the wrong goal. If that’s your attitude, you’re not trying to help anyone; you’re merely reducing your liability in case of a lawsuit. Your lawyer might assert that this is an excellent use of formal correction tools, but I disagree. So would your employee.

Back to our story. It wasn’t long before the CTO grew tired of glaring at Jim. The code failed to improve, so the CTO lost faith in him, chalking it up to "just a bad hire." The CTO concluded that Jim wasn’t as skilled as he’d presented himself in the interview. As the CTO later told me, “When I realize someone needs to go, I get them out as fast as possible. 'Hire slow, fire fast' is my motto.”

Once the CTO decided Jim wasn’t a “good fit,” the formal correction process—really, the termination process—moved forward quickly. The discussions between the CTO and the management team focused on improving their job interview process to avoid this “poor fit” problem in the future.

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Using formal correction tools to help poor performers improve would have been a better idea. Not to mention it would avoid increasing employee turnover, which means higher recruiting and training costs.

Instead, choose a better goal: Believe that improvement is possible.

No one embarks on a journey perceived as impossible. Once managers lose faith in an employee, it is virtually impossible to generate the optimism necessary for a genuine second chance. Likewise, an employee who knows that the PIP is a checkbox for the path out the door rarely can muster the attitude required to succeed. Who can function with a lack of trust?

Structured opportunities to succeed

Your HR department has a set of tools to help struggling team members. These go by various names, with well-understood (to HR) checkpoints:

  • Verbal warning: This document is usually the first step of formal correction, outlining the problem and desired outcomes and initial time frame for correcting the issue.
  • Performance improvement plan or corrective action plan: This type of document typically has four parts: identify each performance or behavior problem; describe the desired performance or behavior; outline steps and actions necessary to correct the problem; specify the time frame for correction and the next steps that will be taken if the problem is not corrected.
  • Written warning, second written warning, or final written warning: These documents record the employee’s progress through the formal correction process.
  • Performance metrics: Identifies how and when the employee is measured against success standards.
  • Meeting schedule: The schedule for check-in meetings to discuss the formal correction activities and progress.

Depending on the severity of the problem, you may skip some steps. For example, some companies address workplace violence with immediate termination. Others address drug problems through rehabilitation programs. Your HR department can share the company’s policies.

Your glass must be half full

When you apply the formal correction process with a subordinate, do so in a manner that emphasizes your genuine desire for the team member to work things out. Be emphatic about your support of the individual personally. Don’t be angry at the employee’s past failures; be supportive and caring, repeatedly expressing the belief that the issue can be addressed.

If you must err, err on the side of fairness, optimism, and clarity. Never assume that your employee knows what you are thinking, that you are trying to help them, or that you have their best interest at heart. Instead, tell them these things as often as necessary (and it’s probably more often than you think!).

In addition, explain how your actions align with your beliefs. Saying, “I want to meet with you at the end of each shift” can be interpreted as micromanagement. But adding the phrase, “…so that you never have to guess what I’m thinking or where you stand” aligns this action with your supportive, caring stance.

At my second written warning meeting, my manager reiterated, “I know you can do it, but this is your last chance.” He was honest. My manager did not doubt that I could change, but he made it clear that changing was up to me, not to him. I also knew that he meant it when he said, “I know you can do this.” He’d shown me that this was true through his encouragement, guidance, and optimism. Early in the discipline process, my boss told me, “I believe you are capable of changing. I will help however I can, but you must provide the key ingredients of desire and effort.” This set the context for the entire process. Even though accepting criticism and changing my behavior and attitude was difficult, I never doubted that my manager believed in me.

I cannot overemphasize the role of managerial optimism. Formal correction is difficult for employees. It's crucial that they know that the manager has their best interests at heart. Managers must be optimistic in the midst of a pessimistic process. Especially because so many employees assume, based on previous experience, you’re just saying supportive things, while in the background, you’re constructing the job req for the employee’s replacement.

As in most things, attitude is extremely important. Optimism and pessimism can both lead to confirmation bias, subtly influencing what we observe.

The pessimistic CTO did not believe that Jim could change, and that blinded him to Jim’s attempts at change. In fact, when Jim turned in high-quality code, the CTO privately chalked it up to Jim “copying a pattern he’d found on the Internet.” Like most of us, he interpreted the facts through the lens of his beliefs.

In contrast, my boss was optimistic. He expected me to do my best, and when he saw me take small steps in that direction, he encouraged me even more. As the result of his formal correction, I stayed at the company for 13 more years. During that time, I experienced tremendous professional success, moving from a lowly junior programmer to assistant software manager. I owe a great debt of gratitude to a manager who believed in me. 

Manage for personal growth, not firing

Managers often use formal correction too late, for the wrong reasons and after they have already lost hope. Instead of helping a team member improve, they use these tools to get rid of people. That’s painful to the (ex-)employee, destroys team morale, is expensive for hiring reasons—and is bad for the manager, too. This practice allows immature managers to shift blame away from themselves and certainly does not help them become better leaders.

Instead, use clear informal correction early on. Use formal correction as additional opportunities for growth, creating a safe environment in which to improve. Let team members know that this is an improvement process and not a punishment process.

As managers and leaders, we owe it to our teams to do better. Learning to wield these tools properly provides a multitude of benefits for the team, the company, and the individuals involved.

Giving feedback: Lessons for leaders

  • Start with informal and constructive feedback—early and often. Keep the right goal in mind: performance improvement.
  • Use the structure of formal correction systems such as PIPs to set clear goals for the employee, identify the metrics to track improvement, and make firm deadlines for compliance.
  • Believe in the employee—and make that clear when delivering feedback. Be optimistic about the outcome of your formal correction activities.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.