Delivering Negative Feedback Effectively
2 August, 2020
As a leader, I would unfortunately receive reports on people underperforming or having interpersonal conflicts. While I have a responsibility to address those problems, I still find delivering negative feedback uneasy and uncomfortable. What I believe prevents most people from delivering honest feedback is the fear of being disliked and being afraid to hurt other people’s feelings. Some prefer to ignore it, hoping it will go away or that it was a one-time thing. However, I have found this to not be the case. Often, the longer you let it go, the bigger it gets.
Yet, as a leader, you are responsible to help people become successful and identify opportunities for their improvement. It is not a personal thing, popularity contest or anything else other than providing constructive criticism and helping them improve their performance or behavior. Moreover, if a person underperforms or negatively impacts your team, you have a responsibility to protect the team as a whole.
I would approach any of those situations with curiosity and compassion and with a strong conviction that my responsibility as a leader is to help a person improve. I would minimize my emotions and focus on the business side of the problem. By doing so it focuses on the behavior, not the person and the actions you can take to address the issue. Removing anything personal would allow me to assess the problem more objectively and avoid any ad hominem qualifications.
Whenever I would encounter an uncomfortable situation and I would have to deliver negative feedback, I would allow curiosity to be my guide and I would look for evidence corroborated by concrete examples before taking any actions. If I had personally witnessed a situation that would require my involvement then I would apply my own formula on how to engage in a conversation. I would clearly state what I have observed and what the impact of that behavior is. Then I would give the person a chance to absorb and respond. This is when things can get emotional and you can find the conversation gets defensive. I would try to steer it away from that and stick the facts. You then want to move to working together on what are the next steps we should take. I would follow up with an email clarifying once again key points and ensuring that we are on the same page. Then, I would come up with a plan that we would check-in and work closely together to ensure their gradual improvement.
Most often things would get better, but if they don’t, another -- often more uncomfortable -- conversation would follow. I would prepare in advance key talking points and would keep reminding myself that I am doing this to help the other person. Again, I would let my curiosity guide me as I would learn more about what was happening with this person. Oftentimes, managers are unaware of serious personal problems that would spill over to the workplace and impact a person's performance and behavior. After digging deeper and learning that there were no reasonable explanations for the continual deterioration of their performance and behavior I would emphasize how things have gotten more serious, that I have identified a pattern and recurring nature of the problem that calls for more drastic measures. It’s important that your teammate understands the seriousness of the situation and the consequences of inaction.
If the problem continues, you may have to consider letting go of that person. It’s important to loop in HR as soon as you think this may be a possible outcome.
What makes my approach unique is a good balance of being compassionate and direct. I come from a place of curiosity and care and have no other intentions but to help the other person be the best version of themselves. Nevertheless, I have to keep reminding myself not to feel guilty and not to fear being disliked. After all, I am responsible for the team as a whole and everything should be subservient to the success of the business.
- Years ago I had to let someone go and it was quite a surprise for them. I believe some of this surprise was a result of me failing to deliver direct and honest feedback when it was needed. I failed them as a manager and I regret to this day that they had to be surprised. This is the emotional baggage I carry with me, but that allowed me to improve and mature as a manager.
- The importance of straightforward and candid feedback can not be overstated. This is an alpha and omega of any trustful and productive relationship between a manager and their employee. It should be always coupled with a follow-up even if it makes you a nagging person. Your responsibility as a leader is to navigate uncomfortable situations, set clear expectations, and ensure accountability, and delivering negative feedback is an inseparable part of that process.
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