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Rebecca SchalmIt has been challenging for many of us to deliver consistent, stellar performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given everything we’ve been coping with, it’s not surprising that job performance has suffered at times.

Even though there are good reasons for it, it doesn’t make us feel any better about ourselves. Failing to live up to expectations, or our potential, can lead to periods of self-doubt and anxiety.

Sometimes we need reassurance that we’re doing okay.

As a manager, you may find members of your team reaching out for more reassurance than they have in the past. When you know people are doing their best and are generally on-track, you can provide that reassurance with a clear conscience. But what if people are having genuine performance problems? How do you balance support with feedback?

Julia manages a small team of sales specialists who have a great track record. Since the pandemic, they’ve had to shift to a remote sales model and this has been challenging. They’re relationship-builders, accustomed to spending time with clients and prospective clients. They have had to adjust to a more transactional sales approach and find new ways to source leads.

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Most are doing okay, none is excelling and one is significantly underperforming. They’re all anxious about their performance, their compensation and keeping their jobs.

Julia finds herself having to provide more emotional support and reassurance than she’s used to, but she knows maintaining team morale is important. Chad, however, is really struggling with the new sales model and is at risk of failing.

Under normal circumstances, Julia wouldn’t have a problem confronting Chad about his performance. But she knows his situation during the pandemic has been particularly stressful. His partner, a manager in the hospitality industry, lost his job. He has elderly, vulnerable parents who live several hours away. A close friend died suddenly, leaving a young family who need support.

Julia is afraid if she’s too hard on Chad, he might lose it completely. At the same time, she’s getting pressure from her boss about his performance and the impact it’s having on team results. She feels trapped – how to balance support with constructive feedback.

Chad has historically been a solid performer and team member and Julia wants to help him get through the pandemic intact. With that motivation clear in her mind, she made the decision to sit down and have a candid conversation with him about his performance.

To her surprise, Chad responded with relief. He had been waiting for this. Pretending things were fine wasn’t helping and it was damaging their relationship. With the air cleared, they could focus on the changes he needed to make to be more successful.

Tim Knight does a great job differentiating between reassurance and feedback. To paraphrase, the goal of reassurance is to bolster confidence, whereas the goal of feedback is to shape behaviour. A good leader knows when to use each.

When someone on your team is having genuine performance problems that can’t be dismissed due to COVID, offering reassurance not only feels disingenuous but is unlikely to help resolve anything. It’s not their confidence that needs bolstering, it’s their actual performance that needs to improve. If you hold back on providing reassurance but don’t explain why, the result is likely to be even greater anxiety. And heightened anxiety rarely has a positive impact on someone’s already-shaky performance.

The antidote to a vicious reassurance-seeking-and-withholding cycle is honest feedback. This can be delivered in a supportive, even reassuring, way. There are five important messages to communicate:

  • You know there are extenuating circumstances and a performance gap isn’t intentional. You know your team member wants to do better.
  • The performance gap is real and needs to be addressed.
  • Addressing performance will help to relieve everyone’s anxiety.
  • Provide examples of concrete behaviours that illustrate and highlight what you see as contributing to the performance gap. Avoid references to attitudes or personal characteristics and focus on behaviours. Actions are things people can adapt.
  • You will work with and support them in making a change.

As a leader, you have a critical role to play in supporting your team’s emotional wellness and their job performance. Honest feedback and a genuine effort to help will set you on the right course.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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