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How Construction Leaders Can Give Workers Feedback — Good and Bad

It can be difficult for leaders to give feedback to workers about their short-term performance and long-term career goals. Here are some things to make it easier

Annual performance reviews are a time-honored practice in the corporate world. They’re an opportunity for managers to sit down with workers and evaluate their work, set new goals for the year ahead and talk about their long-term career growth.

But as a formal act, performance reviews can also be a drain, taking managers and their direct reports away from daily tasks as they reach back into their memories over the past year to consider the highs and lows. Then, of course, there’s the trove of paperwork that traditionally comes with the formal performance management process, drowning managers and leaders in end-of-year busywork.

For some employees—and leaders—the whole exercise is demotivating. Gallup reported about one study that found that traditional performance reviews actually decreased worker performance about 30% of the time. And in a 2019 Gallup poll, only 14% of employees strongly agreed that performance reviews prompted any improvement in actual performance.

But that doesn’t mean workers don’t value feedback. In fact, many want more of it, more often. And when they get it, they do better. Gallup also found that when managers offer weekly feedback, instead of only annual reviews, workers were three times more likely to be motivated to do outstanding work and nearly three times more likely to be engaged at work.   

The exercise of the traditional performance review can be even more difficult to pull off—and gain value from—in the construction industry, where much of the workforce is splintered into in-office and jobsite roles. Moreover, any specific job is likely employing not just a single company but a host of subcontractors and trades workers.

Finally, the busyness and breakneck pace of most construction jobsites leaves little focused time where project leaders and managers can have in-depth conversations with each worker about their performance. This makes a once-a-year performance conversation impractical.

For Brett Walsh, executive vice president of human resources and organizational development for Graycor, a national construction company, providing regular feedback—praise and criticism—is key to business growth.

“Our ability to grow and advance the business is totally dependent on the pipeline of talent that is stepping into new roles,” Walsh said. “So, if you’re not giving feedback to somebody in the role they are in today, it’s going to be tough for them to perform well in that job. And it’s going to be even more tough for them to demonstrate that they can perform well in the next job.”

What’s more, if you wait an entire year to offer feedback, employees will be in the dark about how they’re doing. “There’s no better place for learning than on the job,” Walsh said. “Offering feedback and coaching and reinforcing the right things the minute they see it—that’s behavior science 101.”

Yet, amid busy jobsites and deadline crunches, celebrating successes and noting missteps isn’t always easy. Construction and talent professionals shared some tips for sharing the bad and the good.

The Bad: Don’t Avoid It

Few people relish having to deliver bad news. But employees can’t grow if they’re allowed to make the same mistakes over time. And in a culture like the construction industry, where soft skills might be in short supply and shouting and yelling are common, it’s important to be thoughtful about the delivery.

Here are three strategies for delivering criticism:

Listen for excuses and reasons — and note the difference

Going into the face-to-face conversation, assume that the employee is trying to do their best and understand that they’re probably nervous, said Ashley Cox, founder and CEO of SproutHR, an HR consulting firm. Once the conversation begins, listen for excuses and reasons.

If an employee keeps coming into work late, an excuse would be that they can’t get out of bed on time. In that case, the manager should help them explore some ways to take personal responsibility, Cox said.

But, if the employee keeps arriving after the 9 a.m. start time because their child’s school doesn’t open until 9 a.m., that’s a reason, not an excuse. It deserves discussion and, if possible, a workaround, Cox said. If you want to cultivate engaged and happy employees, it’s important to look at the whole person. “When you really take care of your people, they are going to take care of your business,” she said.

Don’t wag your finger

Wes Guckert, president and CEO of The Traffic Group, a traffic engineering firm, takes a page from couples’ therapists when it comes to having performance conversations. Instead of wagging his finger, he starts a conversation by talking about how he feels and how the individual’s actions are impacting the business.

“What you say is, ‘I feel as if you are taking advantage of my allowing you to come in a few minutes late. I feel as if you’re doing it more and more,’” Guckert said. “… I feel as if it’s not holding up your end of the bargain.”

When you frame the issue in this way, Guckert said, employees are less likely to be on the defensive as you iron out next steps.

Consider them teaching moments

Thomas Merritt, a regional managing director at Anser Advisory, a project advisory firm, strikes up tough conversations by asking open-ended questions about, for example, how a worker could have handled a particular situation better. “It’s more of a teaching moment; it’s not a blame moment,” Merritt said. “If it happens numerous times and the behavior doesn’t change, it gets more prescriptive.”

The Good: Don’t Forget to Share It

When it comes to employee engagement and retention, recognizing great work is also vital, Cox said.

Providing positive feedback lets workers know that they’re doing a great job and that they’re on track to meet their goals, Cox said. It’s a simple as patting somebody on the back for great work during a private moment, announcing it during a weekly team meeting or even posting the accolades on your company’s social media.

“The easiest is always in the moment and just saying what you genuinely feel,” Cox said. “If you’re feeling grateful, tell them you’re feeling grateful. If you’re feeling relieved, tell them you’re feeling relieved. … This is the human connection here.”

All about the people

Formal reviews can still have a place, Cox said. It’s an opportunity for supervisors to have conversations with workers about the goals of the company and how the individual made a difference. Whether it’s once a year or once a quarter depends on the company.

Graycor, for example, has deployed a performance management and learning platform that tracks goals and other benchmarks for employees. Supervisors are encouraged to check in with workers every three to four months—or as needed. “Our most successful managers with the highest-performing teams use it regularly with a lot of success,” Walsh said.

Walsh said the bottom line with providing feedback to someone else is that it’s not as much about the systems in place as the people who deliver the messages.

“It’s easier for someone to receive feedback from someone who is honest about their own shortcomings and vulnerability, and that they can trust that message and that they are coming from a good, healthy place,” he said. “Not a ‘You’ve got to be more like me because I have it all figured out.’ People who talk like that don’t last long here.”

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