Performance feedback: Correcting unacceptable performance

People Power

by Robert Milligan

We traditionally talk about two types of feedback – positive and negative – because there are two outcomes of every behavior or performance: 1) meeting or exceeding expectations; or 2) failing to meet expectations.

The appropriate response to “good performance” is positive feedback. It does not follow, however, that negative feedback is always the appropriate response to “unacceptable performance.”

When we experience unacceptable performance or behavior, a little voice subconsciously or consciously asks, “What punishment is appropriate?” The question is understandable, but the wrong question. We need to look at human behavior. Answer these two questions:

• When someone else makes a mistake, who or what do we tend to blame?

• When we ourselves make a mistake, who or what do we tend to blame?

The likely answer to the first question is “the other person.” The likely answer to the second is “not ourselves.”

These answers are at the core of human nature. In organizational behavior literature, this tendency is referred to as “The Fundamental Theorem of Attribution.”

When there is unacceptable behavior:

• the supervisor will likely attribute the performance as under the control of the employee and provide reprimand or punishment.

• the employee will likely believe/perceive/argue the unacceptable performance is out of his or her control, and a reprimand will be perceived as unfair.

In order to avoid this perception bias, we have to replace the “What punishment is appropriate?” question with “Why? What is the reason for the unacceptable performance?”

I often quote a highly respected dairy manager speaking at a “dairy days” program: “When I analyze the cause of my employee’s unacceptable performance, 90% of the time I determine the cause was something I did.” There are two key points in his quote:

• He was clearly asking: “Why? What is the reason for the unacceptable performance?”

• He was saying – and research, my experience and other managers agree – most unacceptable behavior is caused by factors not in the control of the employee.

Therefore, you may choose between two – not one – responses to “unacceptable behavior.”

Redirection feedback

Most managers know negative feedback is not appropriate in a situation where unacceptable performance is not due to the employee’s lack of motivation or focus. However, not knowing what else to use, they often do nothing, failing to be proactive and failing to change results.

The situation becomes an opportunity to redirect the employee toward good performance. We must pursue “What is the reason for the unacceptable performance?” to determine the cause. Possibilities include:

• insufficient training and coaching.

• expectations were not clear.

• the expectation was not attainable.

• unusual or unexpected circumstances prevented meeting the expectations.

As with any problem, understanding the root cause allows us to develop a plan to correct it – in this case unacceptable performance. You now have the opportunity to be proactive,  enable change in yourself and/or the employee,  increase employee performance and thus, farm business performance.

Redirecting is not easy, because the employee will likely expect – and easily perceive – you are delivering a reprimand.

To provide redirection feedback:

• begin with and include positive feedback on positive efforts and expectations met or exceeded. You are building on success.

• communicate that current performance is not acceptable. That’s often difficult. You must convey you want to help, not  reprimand.

• convey he or she is not at fault. Also often difficult to convey, this is the basis of and key to redirection feedback.

• use what you learned in determining the cause of the unacceptable performance to outline required changes – skills learned, knowledge gained, behaviors changed, actions taken, resources provided, expectations adjusted – to enable “successful” performance.

• keep focused on redirecting to succeed.

Negative feedback

If you determine the cause of the unacceptable performance is due to the employee’s lack of motivation, energy, focus or concentration – especially if you have already provided redirection feedback – negative feedback is warranted.

However, neither you nor the employee should view negative feedback as a punishment. It should be given as a choice:

• make the change necessary for good performance.

• incur the specified consequence.

Negative feedback is not easy to deliver. Following are some suggestions:

1) Begin with and include throughout positive feedback on positive efforts and expectations met or exceeded.

2) Communicate that performance is not acceptable, and change is expected.

3) Be clear the situation is not the cause of the unacceptable performance; the behavior is the problem.

4) Recognize the consequence – absence of positive feedback, reminder, reprimand, punishment – must produce sufficient discomfort to cause a change in behavior.

5) The purpose is still employee success.

Nearly all managers dread dealing with unacceptable performance. You must be proactive in determining the cause, then work to institute changes that will lead to employee success.

Based on your analysis of the reason for the failure to perform, you can redirect and/or provide a consequence for failure to change.


Robert Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC, can be reached via phone: 651-647-0495; e-mail:, or website: His column appears monthly in Eastern DairyBusiness magazine.