misunderstanding feedback

What do you do when your remote direct reports seem surprised by the feedback they get? They shouldn’t but some people seem to know exactly what and how they’re doing, while others seem oblivious. What’s a leader to do?

When I teach our Coaching and Feedback at a Distance sessions, no matter who these folks are or what industry they’re in, the question remains the same: “How do you coach someone who just doesn’t get it?”

The first thing that would help is to understand exactly what “it” is.

When we offer to coach someone or give them feedback on their work, the other person ideally shouldn’t be surprised by that information. After all, people know what their jobs are, and surely they know whether or not they are achieving their goals, right?


Humans being human, bad feedback often takes us by surprise. There are several reasons the people we coach seem oblivious to the reality of their work. Here are some of the most common.

The goals were long-term results goals, not process goals.

When we do our goal-setting, we often take a year’s work at a time. We start in January with good intentions and then when the annual (or quarterly) review takes place months later the person is surprised to see how far behind they are and gets defensive. That’s because we can’t really process a year’s worth of information at a time. We can always imagine we’ll “make it up the next month,” or, You know how the summer is.” By breaking year-long goals into shorter, regularly measured and reported steps, it’s easier for both you and the employee to have a true picture of how things are going. Think about not just what the end result is, but what the steps will be to get there.

Either there’s little reporting along the way, or it isn’t acknowledged.

Sometimes the problem is a lack of information and both the manager and the individual are a bit surprised that there’s bad news out there. Other times, the person dutifully fills out the data, or the system spits out a report, and neither the manager nor the worker reads it or comments on it. How big a deal can it be if you underperformed last month but nobody has said anything? Feedback should come in a timely manner. If there’s something worth remarking on in February, holding comment until the June semi-annual review doesn’t make sense. By ignoring data, you send the message it just doesn’t matter or isn’t a big deal.

They don’t know why it matters.

Some companies measure a lot of activities, and we know they aren’t all priorities. After a while, some of the metrics are thought of as busy-work or less important than other things. Do your team members understand WHY the activity or behavior matters and how it impacts the team and their work?

They get it, they are just in denial.

Shocking as it is to superior beings like us, SOME people (not us of course) tend to downplay bad news or clues that things aren’t going as well as we’d like.  It’s how some people (not us of course) stay motivated and keep plugging away even when things aren’t rosy. (But not us, of course)

How can you tell when people truly don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them and when they are on the defensive? Ask yourself:

Am I sure the goals were clear and documented?

Do they receive enough regular feedback that my coaching shouldn’t surprise them?

Do they understand the feedback, and how do I know that?

Are they getting any good feedback, or only hearing from you when things go wrong?

Do they know what to do with the feedback, and where to go from here or are you just piling on?

Coaching and delivering feedback in a virtual environment requires being mindful and perhaps more deliberate than when you can run into people in the hallway or pop by their desk. If you’re wondering if they get it, do they know what “it” is?


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.

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