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Effective Feedback: What, What, Why

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Managers and supervisors will often need to correct an employee’s practices during training and in the course of daily job performance. The techniques used to make those rectifications can have a significant influence on both the effectiveness of the feedback and the mindset of the worker. Vague or unclear evaluations can leave an employee confused and unsure of proper practices. Nonobjective or personal critiques can alienate a staff member and lower his or her receptiveness to input. Therefore, it is imperative for managers to give feedback that is clear, informational and objective. To this end, organizations around the globe have implemented a training procedure known as “What, What, Why.”

“What, What, Why” is an easily remembered, three-step formula that requires virtually no practice to implement effectively. The aim of this method is to objectively inform an employee of exactly which action is objectionable, what the expected practice is and why it is important to implement that practice.

The first step is to make an unemotional observation of the employee’s action. Upon hearing his or her phone representative misrepresent the company’s return policy, a customer service manager might say, “What you did was to tell the customer that we could offer a cash refund on his purchase after thirty days.” Notice the lack of criticism unrelated to the specific action. Also, it is important to exclude any negative modifiers, such as “unfortunately” or “mistakenly.” The employee already understands they have made an unfortunate mistake by the simple fact that feedback is needed. Adding negatives to the statement only increases the chance of triggering a defensive reaction. Keeping it informational and objective ensures the clearest possible communication.

Next, the manager simply tells the employee what the expected practice is. “What we need to tell the customer is: we cannot offer a cash refund after thirty days. However, we would be happy to offer an in-store credit.” Here again, the manager has avoided any hyperbole. By sticking to a strict recitation of policy, the air remains clear of any unproductive negativity and the message has its most direct course to comprehension.

The last step in this formula is to explain the “why.” When an employee understands why a policy is in place, it not only makes it easier to remember the policy itself, it reassures the employee the policy is important and not merely an arbitrary rule. “The reason why we can’t offer a cash refund on widgets after thirty days is because, after that time, the inventory numbers on sold widgets are purged from our widget control system. Because it takes labor to reinstate those numbers, the company loses money on those returns.” Another advantage to explaining the need for a policy is that it arms the staff member with information. The educated employee is now capable of supplying this information to customers and fellow employees alike.

Managers will always need to give feedback to ensure quality and adherence to company policy. Feedback is best received when it is served with objectivity and composed of uncluttered, comprehensive explanations. Management techniques, such as “What, What, Why,” can provide a simple, efficient and effective path to achieving employee compliance that is easily implemented by managers and minimizes the risk of negatively impacting employee satisfaction.


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