By Richard Foster-Fletcher
Your team members work well most of the time. But what happens when someone goes seriously off track? When dreadful work has been done, you’ll need to have a difficult conversation and give honest feedback.
Counter-intuitively, negative feedback is unlikely to be effective. When the work is good enough, it is easy to sandwich the critique between generous helpings of praise and appreciation. However, a barrage of negative feedback is likely to put the subject into a defensive mindset, where they feel too sorry for themselves to learn.
Having managed quite a few teams, I accept that nothing can make these meetings pleasant. However, certain approaches help the message stick, and ensure the person doesn’t feel demoralized.
Here they are, in a handy list format:
Give Yourself Time to Control Your Emotions
The truth is, terrible work can make you despair, or angry, or irritated. None of these feelings are conducive to a healthy conversation. So, take a deep breath, relax, make you are in a calm and collected state of mind before you even think of starting a conversation.
Do It Right Now
Giving largely negative feedback is not something to look forward to. It’s easy to procrastinate on such tasks, but the sooner you do it, the stronger your case is likely to be. Time has a way of smoothing out the rough edges in people’s memories, so delaying is likely to make the recipient feel they did a better job than they did. Bottom line, get the job done before time causes the impact of it to fade away.
Do It Face-to-Face
It’s tempting to shoot off an email and be done with it. But what is good for you is terrible for the person on the receiving end, who, in addition to being upset and defensive, now probably has several questions but isn’t sure if you would welcome them or not. Emails are already bad at conveying positive emotions, so an email of negative feedback is that much worse.
Do It in Private
I strongly believe when the work is truly bad, it makes no sense to chew the person out in front of their peers and make it an exercise in humiliation. Doing it in private allows the recipient to open-up a little more, and be more receptive.
Make a Checklist to Avoid Venting
I’ve been guilty of this – slipping into a “feedback loop” where I have gone on at length, attacking the work from various angles but basically saying nothing new and original. Making a checklist of talking points before the session helps keep me on track and avoid emotional venting.
Identify the Root Cause
Why do people make mistakes? Especially catastrophic mistakes that make such feedback sessions necessary? In my opinion, it is usually either:
- People care too much i.e. they whip themselves into a frenzy, and thus miss vital details.
- They don’t care at all and can’t be bothered to do a decent job.
For the first, it is important to address their work process and coach them to manage stress and deadlines equally well. With the second group, it is the attitude that needs to be addressed first.
Give the Recipient a Chance to Speak
Once you’ve laid out the basic issues and observations, it is best to let the other person speak. They are probably feeling quite defensive, so it is helpful to have them take control of the narrative for the moment and give their side. It makes them feel that you are there not just to criticize, but also listen. This makes a lot of difference on how feedback is perceived.
Discuss the Work, Not the Individual
Keep the conversation and feedback focused on the specific task you are critiquing. This helps avoid anything that might be perceived as a personal attack. Commenting on anything not directly related to the work is going to make them even more defensive.
Specific Problems and Specific Solutions
Few things are more infuriating than vague feedback. Try to avoid phrases like “your work was of inadequate quality. Instead point to specific issues that went wrong. Then, discuss how those issues can be resolved. Discussing what need to change to improve the quality of the work will make the session a productive one.
Establish a Plan to Move Forward
One of the biggest mistakes I used to make regarding feedback was not deciding on a plan and a calendar date for follow-up. Whether it’s a rework of the original task, or specific measures the recipient should be taking to improve performance – always ensure that the person knows what to do and has some accountability after the review.
End With a Message of Encouragement
Normally, I end reviews with positive feedback – something the person did right. However, when it comes to truly irredeemable work, this is difficult, and can sound insincere. In such cases, it is better to end with a statement reaffirming your faith that the person can leave the inferior performance behind and move forward. If possible, reference some past successful project to add heft to your encouragement. Try to ensure the person leaves the review hopeful, and not defeated
Giving feedback is in many ways, a bigger responsibility than we realize. In most cases, the recipient of the feedback is someone on a lower rung of the ladder, someone who aspires to ascend. They are more likely to be more affected by harsh words, and more confused by vague and unclear critique than we might be. In such situations, it’s important we deliver feedback with empathy: in a manner and with language that helps them to get over a setback and to develop their career in a positive way.
Richard Foster-Fletcher is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International. You can follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.