Too often feedback afflicts both managers and employees with fear and loathing—the fear of an upcoming feedback session and the loathing that follows. All of it unnecessary. Keeping ten positive principles in mind can help you to start giving great feedback immediately.
Before we visit what to do, take a look this three-minute video from the Center for Creative Leadership. It identifies ten common mistakes many leaders make trying to avoid tough feedback challenges.
Now that you know what not to do, let’s look at a dozen things every leader should do.
When you give feedback, focus on the facts—what they say or do—rather than what you think of them, what you think they intended, what factors may be influencing their behavior, or what you think they may think or believe. Leave all judgment and personal opinion out of the feedback you deliver.
Let your employee in on the details. Generalities can confuse and leave too much room for your feedback recipient to find exceptions that contradict your statements. This is true for both reinforcing feedback as well. Let them know exactly what you want them to keep doing as well as what you want them to stop.
If your case is strong, you should not have to inflate it with generalities. “You showed up at a client presentations late last Tuesday and Friday,” carries a lot more impact than, “You always show up late for client presentations.” This invites exceptions like, “I was on time Monday and Wednesday.” If you find yourself adding “always” or “never” to your message, maybe you don’t have a case.
Present only what you have witnessed your employee say or do or the results you have reviewed—the memos, reports, or work they have done. Including what others have reported to you will change their focus from the feedback to questions about who is talking behind their back and why.
It may seem that couching tough messages between soft, positive cushions should soften the blow of a hard-to-deliver message. The opposite is true. Your feedback recipient will see right through it. Get to the point, the real point, and nothing but the point.
Leaders can often communicate more effectively with their mouths closed. When it’s your employee’s turn to talk in a feedback session, don’t say anything as long as they are speaking. Listening conveys meaning without words. It says you value what your employee has to say.
Two-way communication requires action from both the receiver and the sender. For example, when you ask probing questions and paraphrase what your employee says, you either reassure them that you understand or, if you misunderstand, you allow them to clarify.
You’re the boss. That’s enough. Unless you happen to be a licensed psychoanalyst, leave psychology to the pros. You may think you know the motives behind unacceptable behavior, you may even be right, but it’s not your job to psychoanalyze. More likely you will muddle your feedback with embarrassing error.
We’re way beyond the days of managerial dictatorship. Great leaders nurture, reinforce, and encourage engagement and high performance. Use your feedback sessions to build better behavior. Leveling threats, direct or implied, creates animosity and reinforces the behavior you want to correct.
As the leader, you have to expose yourself to the risks of leadership. Speak with authority and be prepared to deal with the flack that may come back at you. You’re not the nice person who happens to have a tough message to deliver. You’re the boss who has to guide the behavior of your direct reports.
Address immediately behavior that needs correction. Putting off tough feedback only makes things worse in the long run. Time softens the impact of your message. Memories get foggy. And delay argues against the importance of your direction.
Deliver your message and wrap it up. Know when to stop. Give your employee time to process. If you get an emotional response—anger, tears, silence—assure your feedback recipient that a positive outcome will result from improved behavior. Then schedule a continuation and end the session.
It’s tough to deliver tough messages. And you’re correct to fear that negative feedback might reduce motivation and engagement. It can and will unless you clearly express empathy and your firm belief that your employee can correct their behavior and ultimately succeed.
After you’ve done all you can with skillful feedback and still see no apparent change in behavior, address this in your next feedback session. Try to find out why your employee has not improved. “I have not noticed a change, what’s preventing you from making a change?”
In the end, you may have to involve your human resources professionals and think about ending the offender’s employment. Do so expediently, before their behavior demoralizes your team or worse, before the bad behavior spreads.