Giving feedback is hard. It’s especially hard when the feedback that’s required isn’t easy itself – when it pushes into areas that are uncomfortable or requires facing up to the fact of underperformance.
But giving feedback is necessary, especially in executive roles; the difficult duties of direction and leadership are simply par for the course. And the good news is that the leaders who give difficult feedback well are the leaders who make the biggest impacts both on their organizations and on the people they lead.
Feedback that’s honest and helpful gets remembered. So do the leaders who deliver it.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts to frame things up, presented to help you give courageous feedback.
Feedback is Unselfish
First, it’s important to place difficult feedback in the proper context: Feedback is unselfish. We tend to convince ourselves that the opposite is true – that by withholding difficult feedback, we’re being considerate of other people’s feelings.
Most often, though, we withhold feedback because we’re considering our own feelings.
If a direct report lacks the technical skills that are needed to fulfill their role well, abstaining from providing that feedback is harmful to them. Without the feedback, they’ll continue to underperform (likely under stress) before eventually failing out. With feedback, they’ll have a clearly defined concept of the challenge, and they may be able to course-correct. At the very least they’ll have a proactive start toward finding a better seat.
Really, the only reason to withhold feedback is because you don’t like how it feels, not because you’re concerned for another person’s best interests. It’s difficult, but the first step toward giving better feedback is framing it in the correct light: Feedback is given for the benefit of the recipient and the organization.
When we remember that, we tend to have an easier time giving feedback – and the feedback we give tends to be more effective.
How to Give Feedback That Gets Through
With that understanding, let’s dive into a few of the tactical considerations toward providing feedback – because even feedback delivered with good intentions can be ineffective if it’s not delivered well.
Here’s how to deliver feedback effectively.
Frame the feedback in terms of impact, not as a character indictment.
Brené Brown describes this approach to delivering feedback as coming from “the same side of the table.” Good feedback frames any issues by acknowledging a shared intention and encouraging a collaborative approach toward improving results.
For example, a middle manager is relationally focused but highly unorganized and, as a result, her team has been unproductive. Instead of framing the conversation as a character indictment (“You’re disorganized and it’s not working”), it’s more effective to frame things in terms of shared goals:
“I know you care about your people, and it shows. When you’re disorganized, it hurts your team’s ability to accomplish their objectives. We need to work on ways to improve your organization skills so that you and your team can succeed.”
The worst kind of feedback is critical in a vague way. Specifics can feel uncomfortable or difficult to discuss, but they add clarity to the discussion. When you’re delivering feedback, be specific. Give real, tangible examples of where performance should be improved.
Match the recipient’s level of intensity.
Admittedly, this tip takes some degree of experience (or intuition) to execute well. The bottom line is that feedback is most effective when it’s delivered with an intensity the individual can process.
For instance, some people are calm, reserved, or sensitive. With these people, it’s likely not necessary to give feedback loudly and commandingly – in fact, if you take that approach, you’ll probably trample them over and they may not even absorb the content of your feedback for the emotional toll it takes. You’ll have a greater impact if you bring the intensity down to a calmer level.
On the other side of the spectrum, though, are the people who are intense and assertive. If you take a calm approach to giving feedback to these people, they may not even register your words as requiring action; you’ll need to ramp up your volume and tone to ensure that your message is understood.
In general, read the individual’s personality, and tailor the tone of your feedback accordingly.
Match the severity of the situation.
Finally, in addition to reading the intensity of the individual, it’s important to gauge the severity of the situation.
Some things aren’t a big deal but do require corrective action. Don’t be overly harsh; just deliver what’s needed.
And again, on the other side of the spectrum, some things are very big deals. Don’t sugarcoat things – level up your intensity to convey a tone of urgency and let the recipient know what’s at stake.
Leaders are called to give feedback. It’s a difficult job, but it’s a critically important one. So be kind and be courageous. Your people and your organization will thank you.