Delivering and receiving difficult feedback is a challenge we have all experienced. It can make even the most seasoned professionals uncomfortable and anxious. While it’s not easy pointing out problem areas with someone you work with, it can be even more troubling to hear you’re the one with the problem.
Delivered well, feedback can result in positive action and change. Many of us have worked with gifted bosses — those with the knack for delivering challenging feedback that resulted in our willing commitment to an action plan for change.
Delivered poorly, feedback can result in negativity, hostility or even rebellion. Unfortunately, many of us have worked with the boss whose feedback attempt left us demoralized, highly anxious or even angry enough to look for another job.
Regrettably, there are people who equate offering feedback as license to criticize or judge. When feedback sounds like a personal attack (“you are rude/out of control”), most people will take it personally and respond defensively. Once in defensive mode, people can’t hear anything else you are saying. Typically, they are too busy trying to defend themselves — not the result most managers want.
What is the difference between those who deliver feedback well and those who do it poorly? In my experience, many managers avoid giving tough feedback entirely (only offering positive feedback) because of their discomfort around giving it. Others just give feedback poorly. Gifted bosses have learned the art (and skill) of delivering difficult and effective feedback. The good news is, so can you.
While there is no “easy button,” the following can be helpful when delivering difficult feedback.
Clarify your intent. The intent in offering workplace feedback should be to inform, foster learning and improve performance. As leaders we need to help people reframe “mistakes” as learning opportunities. We are human. We will make mistakes. Effective managers help people learn from their mistakes and clarify what they will do differently next time. This doesn’t involve beating up your people for making the mistake in the first place.
Be behaviorally specific, identify impact and provide recommendations. For example: “Interrupting and cutting off Jane had the effect of Jane not saying another word during our meeting. Our team needs Jane’s input to resolve our issue. In the future, I think it’s important not to interrupt our team members and allow them to finish their points.”
- Roll the video camera (in your mind) and simply describe what you see and hear. Focus on actions. Create a picture of the behavior in question.
- Give feedback in a timely fashion. Don’t wait until the year-end performance review.
- Tie past and preferred behavior to team and individual goals; identify “what’s in it for me?”
- Present sensitive feedback in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Emotions are complex and open to interpretation by others.
- Use judgment words that will likely elicit emotional reactions.
- Make attitude generalizations or inferences.
- Over explain or overwhelm; focus on critical behaviors.
How do you respond when you receive difficult feedback? Many of us respond defensively and with great anxiety. It may be helpful to remember that feedback is information — not definition. It is simply someone else’s perspective. Ask yourself, does the feedback warrant new behavior? Will this new behavior help you achieve your goals? Feedback is the foundation of learning and growth.