Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What the Mercenary Audio blogger firing tells us about leadership and performance feedback

The Mercenary Audio story of the fired blogger has me thinking. Fletcher from Mercenary Audio has responded here and elsewhere. Fletcher claims the blogging was "the straw that broke the camel's back."

Perhaps. But it's also a classic example of poor leadership.

The incident is getting a great deal of play in the blogosphere. The fire-ee, Drew Townson, has told his side of the story now on his blog. Other bloggers have started commenting.

And, it seems that blogging might actually be a protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

And, I've discovered that getting fired for blogging has its own term, dooced. As in, "Drew got dooced from Mercenary Audio."

But all of this pales in comparison to what the incident reminds me about leadership and performance evaluations. From both Fletcher's tale and Mr. Townson's comments, it's clear that, whatever the reason for the firing, it came fast and furious.

Sure, Massachusetts is a right-to-work state; so is Virginia. As I understand it, this means that I can get fired in an instance and I can quit in an instance, and there doesn't need to be a reason. But that doesn't absolve leaders and managers from providing decent performance feedback.

And that appears to have been key here. Mr. Townson did not receive adequate performance feedback. I'd suggest that any person who has received adequate performance feedback isn't surprised by getting canned. And both Fletcher and Mr. Townson acknowledge there was surprise here.

Here are some thoughts to consider in performance feedback.

Performance feedback is not an event, but a process. We've all worked in places where we get the once-a-year feedback. And that's all we get. Well, that really doesn't work for either the organization or the employee. Organizations should have a performance feedback process in place that ensures employees receive formal, documented feedback throughout the year. Quarterly is probably a good target.

Performance feedback needs more than just the formal, written evaluation form. Feedback on performance needs to come in more ways than just the formal evaluation form. Leaders, managers, and supervisors need to provide feedback on a nearly-daily basis. I'd say that if an employee isn't getting some sort of feedback at least weekly, than the organization is missing the mark. That feedback doesn't need to be written. It could be as little as a quick uttered sentence or two. It could be a handwritten note or an email. It could be a sit-down.

Performance feedback needs to encompass the good, the bad, and the ugly. Many of us think of performance feedback as providing only negative feedback. When the boss calls you into the office, do you automatically figure you're going to get chewed out; that's human nature, but it's based on conditioning. Too many leaders only call us in to the office to gnaw on our butts. Performance feedback needs to include the stuff we do well and the stuff we don't do so well.

Performance feedback must be delivered appropriately. Firing someone by voice mail just shows poor leadership. All feedback must be delivered in a appropriate form and medium. We don't can people by email or voice mail. We don't draw someone up short in front of their peers.

Feedback on negative performance can't remain unsaid. If the manager or leader doesn't provide feedback on negative performance, how is the employee supposed to know they're not doing well. I'm willing to bet that in the Mercenary Audio situation, Mr. Townson was never given direct feedback on perceived negative performance. Many of us don't like to confront so we avoid. And when we avoid, things just fester and grow. And then, all of a sudden, it pops like a balloon... or, in this case, a straw on a camel's back.

The bottom line: if we want to have effective and successful organizations, performance feedback must be something that is more than just random events. Without effective performance feedback, how can organizations align everyone's efforts toward a common goal and performance excellence?

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