How to give difficult feedback


Giving difficult feedback is part and parcel of every manager’s job. Maybe someone isn’t pulling their weight in the team and it’s causing a bad atmosphere. Perhaps a project has gone badly off course and is in danger of derailing completely. Or maybe an employee has inadvertently upset a client, who is now threatening to take their business elsewhere.

Whatever the reason, it’s probably fair to say that pulling people up on some aspect of their performance or behaviour is a task most managers dread. They are unsure about how best to deliver the message, worried about how people will react and unsure of what they should do if the employee gets angry or upset.

But shoving issues under the carpet and hoping they will go away is not an option. If employees are not aware that their behaviour is causing an issue, they will continue to behave in exactly the same way. If people are going about a task the wrong way, they won’t know unless someone tells them. And if a team member is ‘coasting’ and continues to get away with it, resentment will start to build and there will be a knock-on effect on the rest of the team.

A useful way to approach giving difficult feedback is to shift your mind-set and look at it in a different light. If you regard feedback as an opportunity to motivate the team and help them grow, rather than a task to be dreaded, it becomes a valuable tool that can help you raise morale and performance. It’s always helpful to recognise that generally most people actively want to do a good job. In fact, I’ve never yet come across people who just go to work day in and day out, not caring about their job or the work they produce. Often, they are just unaware of their impact or gaps in their knowledge, and would welcome feedback that is delivered with a genuine intent to help them improve.

So what are the key steps managers need to take to ensure difficult feedback is given in a constructive manner that helps people move forward?

Be prepared

One of the biggest mistakes managers make is to launch into difficult feedback without having prepared for the conversation beforehand. Think carefully about the timing and avoid giving feedback in the heat of the moment when you’re angry or upset about a task that’s been poorly completed or a difficult situation that has arisen unnecessarily. Last thing on a Friday, in front of others, or when everyone is under pressure in the lead-up to a deadline, are also not the best times. Consider what you want to say and be clear about the key messages you want to get across. Think about how you will react if emotions start to run high. Location is also important. Find a quiet space – or even somewhere out of the office if that’s appropriate – to ensure that colleagues can’t overhear or interrupt. Feedback is better received when a trusting relationship is in place with your team member; so planning weekly or fortnightly catch-ups is probably the best way of achieving this. It can also help you foresee the issues arising so that you can gently nudge the employee in the right direction before any visible mistake occurs. Of course, always prepare how you will end the discussion on a positive note so that you and your team member can move forward; agree any actions that need to be taken and if appropriate, put a time in the diary to review progress. Make it clear that you are there to give any help or support that is needed.

Dig deep

Don’t make assumptions about what has happened. Make sure you have the story straight from the horse’s mouth and not via a third party who may have malicious intent. If someone is not doing a good job, is missing targets or just generally seems to have gone off the boil, there may well be an underlying issue. Maybe their role has changed and they need training to help them cope with new responsibilities? Perhaps they are not getting the support they need from the rest of the team? Or maybe they are getting mixed messages from different managers about what is actually required? Make sure you dig deep and have a full understanding of the situation and everything and everyone that has played a part. If something hasn’t worked out well, it’s rarely as simple as just being down to one person.

Tailor your approach

People react to feedback in different ways. Some become automatically defensive, while others see it as a ‘gift’ that will help them get better at their job. You may even come across employees who find it difficult to accept positive feedback, because they think doing a good job is what they are there to do, and are suspicious of the motives of anyone who singles them out for praise! Think about the people in your team and how similar conversations have gone in the past. Are they the kind of person who will take difficult feedback on the chin or do you need to take a gentler approach? If it’s a serious issue, of course you need to get straight to the point and make sure there is no room for ambiguity. But in many cases, people actually know when they have done a poor job or approached something in the wrong way and it’s just a case of talking to them about what they’ve learnt from the experience and how they can use that insight going forward.

Focus on the behaviour, not the person

Take a step back and make sure you are not giving negative feedback to someone because you simply don’t like them. If you have a personality clash with someone, or their attitude just rubs you up the wrong way, it’s easy to develop a negative mind-set about everything they do. If you are satisfied that you genuinely need to have the difficult conversation, make sure you focus on the behaviour rather than the person. Give concrete examples of what you have observed (not what other people have told you) and what impact that has had. Accept that your way is not the only way and that people with different working styles may approach tasks or relationships in a different way to you. It’s not necessarily wrong – it’s just different.
Try to make feedback – of all kinds – an ongoing part of the way you manage your team. This will help to create a culture of continuous improvement and make it less likely that problems or misunderstandings will arise. It will also send a clear message to your team that it’s OK to have open and honest conversations and to raise issues early, before they become problems or crises.

Often, when managers wait too long to give feedback they tend to conclude, out of frustration, that the person is just not the right person for the job. Fortunately, most of the time this could be avoided if the manager was giving regular feedback along the way. If this sounds familiar, take a step back and try to rebuild the relationship before losing someone which, in many ways, may be a great asset to your team.

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