The first quarter has come and gone. Your team crushed its sales goal, but you have continually missed the opportunity to deliver much needed feedback to your top seller about her tardiness problem. You have rehearsed it in your head a dozen times. But in reality, as she saunters in late and flashes her winning smile, you find yourself smiling back. Why is this so hard?
If this scenario feels familiar, you are not alone. While delivering feedback is a critical function of leadership, most leaders would rather get a tooth pulled than deliver negative feedback. Compound this fear with the challenges associated with open floor plans and the awkwardness of having tough conversations on a couch in an open lounge. It is no surprise that 44% of managers find it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback and one-fifth avoid the practice entirely. Furthermore, 40% of leaders admitted that they don’t give positive feedback either.
Here’s the good news. Delivering feedback gets easier with practice, and effective leaders should be getting plenty of it. According to past work done by the Harvard Business Review, there is a strong correlation between leaders who are good at delivering honest feedback, and their employees’ engagement levels. A more recent HBR study explores important nuances for delivering feedback, suggesting “we excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel…when they see something within us that really works.
As Q1 comes to a close, it is a great time to review some feedback basics:
1. Prepare your team for a culture of feedback.
Since feedback seems to provoke fear in both directions, it is a good idea to prepare your team that you are committed to regular, open and constructive feedback. Start with onboarding and continue to remind your team about the importance of open communication regarding performance. Encourage your direct reports to give you feedback as well. And when you do have to deliver a tough message, prepare your employee for the nature of the conversation with a short preamble, something as simple as “I have some feedback I would like to share with you.”
2. Provide regular feedback.
If feedback is infrequent and always negative, it becomes associated with doom. It is almost like when your parents call you by your first and middle name. They don’t do it often, but when they do, it surely means trouble and you immediately go into defense mode. Social media has made feedback nearly instant, so why wait for the end of a quarter to give your employees performance-enhancing insights?
3. Use your 1:1’s wisely.
I talk to many leaders who declare “feedback victory” simply because they hold regular 1:1 meetings with their direct reports. But when we delve into the content of these meetings, they often realize they are giving little or no feedback. My advice when I talk with employees is to make the first agenda item YOU. Before getting into the weeds on project milestones, talk to your direct reports about their development areas first. Not only does this ensure it gets done, but it can become a theme as you talk through their actual work. For example, if attention to detail is a problem, you can provide specific expectations for work deliverables throughout the 1:1.
4. Give a boost between meetings.
Short bursts of positive feedback are a great way to balance the heaviness of tougher talks. I always encourage leaders to make the most of those transition talks between meetings. If an employee did something right, tell them before the moment evaporates and is forgotten. The sooner an employee knows what they are doing right, the sooner they can do it again. If you “catch them being good” don’t miss the opportunity to tell them. For example, “You did a great job managing the contentious conversation about the project timelines.”
5. Know who you are talking to.
I wish there was a one-size-fits-all prescription for delivering feedback, but people are more complicated than that. As a leader, your goal is not actually delivering the feedback. Your goal is changing and enhancing employee behavior by delivering effective feedback. I encourage leaders to think about the desired outcome and the individual before crafting a message. For example, some employees might do better with a swift and clear message, while that same message might throw another employee into an anxious state of distraction for the remainder of the day. A little customization goes a long way.
6. Press pause if things get emotional.
No matter how well you choose your words, some employees will have an emotional response to your feedback. Once your employee is in fight or flight mode, they are no longer hearing your words (think: Charlie Brown’s teacher). If you sense this is happening, do not continue. I advise leaders to suggest your talk is part one of a two part conversation. Recommend reconvening the next day to give the employee a chance to collect themselves emotionally.
7. Be specific.
We all have blind spots, an inability to see our own weaknesses. For this reason, employees can become defensive when you deliver feedback. Providing data and specific examples is critical for keeping conversations productive. I recommend showing an employee examples of reports containing errors rather than simply telling them to improve their attention to detail. Furthermore, reinforce the connection to the business. For example, “when you come in late, it cuts into our morning meeting and we are less prepared to meet our goals for the day.”
8. Look forward.
I always encourage leaders to use the phrase “next time” when delivering feedback. While mistakes may have happened in the past, the point of providing feedback is to improve future performance. You may need to reference the past to provide evidence, but do not let the conversation get stuck there. For example, “your comments in the staff meeting about the mistake that our analyst made in the report felt very personal. Next time, consider focusing your comments on the importance of our client materials being error-free, followed up by a suggestion for catching those errors”. Rather than dwelling on derogatory remarks made at the last meeting, focus on how you would like this employee to address the junior staff member “next time.”
9. Stop talking.
Negative feedback makes us uncomfortable, but resist the temptation to spit it out and move on without engaging in a two-way conversation. If you have done all of the talking, chances are you missed the teaching moment. When I coach leaders, I recommend talking 50% of the time. Once you have shared the feedback, stop talking and ask a question – “Do you see that?” or “Can I hear your perspective?” Have a conversation and have the employee summarize next steps so you can gauge how well they have internalized the message.
10. Get to solutions.
Remember, your job is not to criticize, but to get the best work out of all of your employees in support of your company’s goals. Merely pointing out shortcomings is not enough. Collaborate with employees on how to enhance their performance. Perhaps the addition of an editing tool for your mistake-prone analyst or an anger management course for your hot-headed finance lead. Consider recommending a TED talk to improve your new leader’s executive presence. Encourage employees to recommend solutions themselves for greater buy-in.
My final word of advice: do not to put off sharing feedback a moment longer. Harboring constructive feedback is a drag on your own focus and productivity, and robs your employee of the chance to improve. The only thing I hear from leaders who finally had the hard conversation is “I wish I had done that sooner.” If you are ready to improve the way your company delivers feedback, contact me at [email protected] or (917) 612-8571.