7 Ways to Give Difficult Feedback

July 7, 2015

No one enjoys receiving negative feedback, and I’m willing to bet that providing employees with negative feedback on performance issues doesn’t top the list of favorite leadership responsibilities. It’s an easy task to procrastinate, especially if you’re tasked with delivering the feedback to one of your more challenging employees.


Over the years, I’ve heard many excuses for not dealing with performance issues in a timely and appropriate manner. When you dig past the excuses, though, there are two common reasons managers fail to provide the necessary feedback. One, they lack the confidence to do so. Two, they genuinely do not know how to provide constructive feedback that will motivate the employee to improve and develop their skills.


In general, feedback shouldn’t have to feel like a formal performance review. It should be an expected, and welcomed, part of your workplace culture. That said, leaders occasionally have to provide performance-issue related feedback that is not welcomed. To minimize frustration and maximize your chances of helping your employee develop their skills to achieve optimum performance, keep the following 7 tips in mind.


Describe the performance problem in objective terms. When you begin a performance dialogue with your employee, focus on specific and observable behaviors. People resent personal attacks and are likely to get defensive. They are much more open to hearing about particular aspects of their behavior that need to change. Steer clear of statements such as, “You’ve had a really negative attitude lately,” or, “You’re just not organized.” It is much more effective to discuss specifics aspects of the behavior that needs to be addressed. For example, “I’m happy to see that you completed the report on time and the layout looks good. Unfortunately, the report has several errors. Let’s talk about your approach to proofing your work.” Or, “I’ve noticed that when customers enter the office, you don’t look up and greet them; they talk to you before you talk to them. Let’s discuss our service strategy.”


Express your opinion regarding the performance. Expressing your concern, frustration, confusion or worry about poor performance is perfectly acceptable. For example, “I’m concerned when you send reports out to clients that have errors. I think it makes us look unprofessional.”


 


Demonstrate that you value the employee. When giving performance feedback, it is critical that you clearly describe the specific behavior that is inappropriate or needs to change. We often find, however, that even the most challenging of employees do a lot of things right. It is important to value the employee’s other contributions when you provide them with feedback that addresses a particular concern. You can say, for example, “Although I’m concerned that you have been late three times this past week, I want to make sure you understand that I am pleased with how you handle your responsibilities once you’re here. You are pleasant to our customers, helpful to your coworkers, and you meet your quotas. My only concern is your tardiness.”


Encourage input. When feedback is handled correctly, employees should feel encouraged to share their view of the problem and, more importantly, their ideas on how to address the problem. In some cases, the manager will need to be direct and specific about how the employee should change their behavior. In most cases, however, employees are capable of generating their own solutions to inappropriate or counterproductive behaviors. Employees are always more motivated to follow their own suggestions for improving performance. If you can live with their suggestion, give it a chance. You can always reassess later, if necessary. The overarching goal of the conversation is to motivate change. If you think the employee’s idea might work, support it.


Listen. Leadership is based on your relationships with those who follow you. A solid relationship based on trust and respect is impossible to build if you don’t listen. Listening says, “I care.” It helps you identify why there might be a problem, from the employee’s perspective. Listening gives you time think about solutions that might fix the problem. A great coach asks questions, listens to the response, and acts accordingly. It’s no coincidence that the best coaches are also the best listeners.


Outline future behaviors. After you have clearly identified the problem and had a conversation about what will change, it is important to clearly outline the behavior you expect to see in the future. You can say, for example, “Great. It sounds like you’ve got a plan in place to have another team member proof your reports before they are sent out to our clients. Let’s meet next week to review the reports you’ve sent out during the week. Our goal is to have reports that are 100% accurate.”


Project outcomes, both positive and negative, related to the performance issue you are discussing. In the past, if coaching has not effectively changed a behavior, what were the consequences? In some cases, coaching doesn’t work because there are no consequences for poor performance. In fact, sometimes there are positive consequences for poor performance. For example, if a salaried employee consistently comes in late, but leaves on time, the positive consequence is less work. Make sure the employee understands what the outcome of continued poor performance will be. In the case of the late employee, you could say, “It sounds like you have some excellent ideas for getting to work on time. Now that you know how serious we are about this, I am confident that you will make every effort to be here on time in the future. Since we’ve talked about this twice, however, I want you to know that if you do decide to come in late again, I will take the first step in our disciplinary process and write you up.”


When you provide your employees with feedback, you are giving them the information necessary to improve and further develop their skills. Feedback is a necessary aspect of the workplace culture. When a leader excels at giving timely, honest and constructive feedback, they payoff is improved performance, better morale, greater retention of team members and less stress for you as the leader.

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