Effective feedback is part art, part science. Telling employees that they need to do X instead of Y is the science part. That’s easy. But feedback that addresses personality and character traits is hard feedback to give; that’s the art.
Many managers resist giving this kind of feedback because it makes them uncomfortable. They fear the outcome, which is generally neither positive nor pleasant. The situation itself can feel embarrassing, not to mention the awkward work interactions in the days that follow. Managers often procrastinate giving difficult feedback in the hopes that it will just go away or somehow resolve itself. But once you’ve gone too far down the road without giving feedback, the situation just becomes more difficult and confusing for the employee.
Employees need feedback to see themselves more accurately, helping them to adjust work habits, improve behavior, and develop their skills. Receiving difficult feedback is a necessary part of this growth process. Think of feedback as an essential element of employee development that you provide on a regular, proactive basis, not just during performance reviews.
Here are two common reasons for necessary-but-difficult feedback.
The employee is a colossal jerk
“You’re acting like a jackass,” is feedback you might want to give, but can’t. I worked with a CEO who brought me in as a buffer during a challenging employee performance review. The employee had been passed over for a management role, and was angry about it. He was fully qualified for the position, but he was quite simply a jerk who other employees didn’t like or respect. The employee acknowledged, but was indignant about, his offensive behavior.
I asked him point-blank if he knew the affect his bad behavior had on others. Without blinking, he said he did. But when I asked him what he thought was getting from the behavior, he had no answer.
Employees who conduct themselves this way may think that acting like a jerk gives them power, especially if that behavior goes unchecked. They may also be taking out their unhappiness at work (or in life) on others. Whatever the reason, this kind of behavior needs to be addressed. Otherwise you’re giving the impression that jackasses are welcome in your company culture.
Feedback that feels too personal
Comments on outward appearance, dress, hygiene and overall professional presence can be touchy to relay because they go way below the surface. As a young manager in the banking industry, I once had to give feedback to a very woman who could be described as zaftig. She wore ultra-tight and low-cut sweaters that made the men in our department uncomfortable.
Several male managers came to me asking me to give her the feedback and thought it might be better received coming from a woman. It wasn’t. She was indignant, and turned the situation around on me, claiming that I was the one who had a problem with her.
When it comes to this kind of personal feedback, feelings will always get hurt. When people perceive that criticism is personal, their first reaction is usually to go on the defensive or shut down. It’s just a matter of delivering the feedback in the most thoughtful way possible, and tying it to company policy whenever possible.
Soften the blow of hard feedback
Difficult feedback is never easy, but there are ways to make it more palatable and even help employees be more receptive.
Give feedback frequently. Feedback typically happens during a performance review or when something is going really badly. Employees need to receive feedback regularly, not occasionally, so that they can adjust their behavior and practice new skills in real time. If they only find out once per year that something they have been doing for 12 months isn’t working, then they aren’t being well-served by management. Even a few quick sentences about what is going right and what is going wrong is much more effective in the moment and will reinforce the kind of behavior managers want to see.
Give feedback proactively. When feedback isn’t given proactively and thoughtfully, building frustrations can take control and eventually cause a manager to blurt out criticism that is less than tactful. This is an extremely ineffective way to give feedback. The only outcome of giving feedback in the heat of the moment is hurt feelings or stress, which completely block your message from being absorbed.
Give feedback positively. Managers sometimes make the mistake of not giving enough feedback on what the employee is doing right. Positive feedback is not only the best way to reinforce and encourage the behavior you’re looking for, but it also creates a little bit of buffer when critical feedback must be given. Positive feedback is given less often than negative, but it is necessary.
When it comes to feedback, more is better. You might be surprised to see how consistent, well-given feedback positively affects your company culture. It makes employees more confident in their abilities and in your expectations. When you give regular feedback, there shouldn’t be any unpleasant surprises. You’ll also find that it curbs gossip because employees know what to expect, and they don’t have the opportunity to develop a narrative about their coworkers and about your management.
Even when the message is difficult, it’s always best to deliver it sooner rather than waiting. Be proactive and you’ll cut through the unspoken chatter.
Lisa M. Aldisert is a New York City-based business advisor, trend expert, speaker and author. She is president of Pharos Alliance Inc., an executive advisory firm specializing in strategic planning, organizational and leadership development for entrepreneurial organizations. Aldisert’s most recent book is "Leadership Reflections."
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