David Wray

CommunicationDifficult PeopleFeedbackLeadershipListeningSelf-Control

Communication: Tough Feedback that Helps

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What is tough feedback?

Tough feedback means something different to each individual. It may imply “bad news” is about to follow or it may suggest that the person giving the feedback needs to be firm, direct and determined. Or it can also allude to the fact that giving critique feedback may be difficult and uncomfortable to do or to receive.

“Praise makes you feel good, critique makes you better” (author unknown)

The challenge for all leaders is giving feedback in a way that motivates change rather than one where the recipient becomes defensive. The skill lies in two things:

  1. What is said
  2. How it is said

Our objective is to foster a moment where the recipient hears the feedback, reflects on it, and learns from it. Let’s use a common example for this topic. 

A typical workplace moment

Imagine Jenn has a full plate of work tasks, such that she has more than she can actually manage but is somehow getting it done. 

So far, a fairly typical scenario for many of us but let’s add some real-life scenarios into the mix – perhaps dealing with three children under five, a child with special needs, a parent with dementia or someone close fighting cancer. These are increasingly becoming the norm for each of us – we juggle several pressures coming close to, but just staving off, burnout.

In walks Tanuj, the team leader, with a “brilliant new and efficient way” of doing something. It makes his life easier but adds even more work to Jenn and others on the team. What’s worse, Tanuj’s ideas don’t deliver more value to the organization in real terms.

Jenn’s ordinary capacity for calm snaps: “I am not doing that; it serves no business purpose. If you want a prettier report, do it yourself Tanuj!”

Oops….Jenn instantly realizes what she’s done but she doesn’t want to lose face so she holds firm. Tanuj gets angry, Jenn’s outburst was in front of the team. He immediately writes-up the behaviour and sends an insubordination case file over to HR.

Now the ball is careening down the hill for both Jenn and Tanuj. Leading us to ask how do you avoid the common leadership pitfalls and create the environment necessary for growth?

How to deliver tough feedback for growth

Avoiding feedback pitfalls first!

Let’s start by identifying the common pitfalls so we’re clear on what we want to avoid.

  1. We are all a collection of individual life experiences most of which others know nothing about. Fortunately, leaders can sidestep thorny root cause reasons (often from childhood), curiosity peaked yet? It’s simply recognition that resolving behaviours is the same whether we recognize its origin or not. 
  2. Going into the conversation thinking you have all of the answers, you don’t (see point #1)!
  3. If you know or expect an individual to react poorly to constructive criticism, be direct! Avoid obfuscating, softening or “sandwiching” your message. Sandwich feedback is nothing more than starting with a positive comment, insert the negative one and then finish on a positive one again (doing so anchors a trigger in some that praise is followed by a critique or is insincere).
  4. Do not addresses defensiveness (it will only escalate the issue in that moment), stay focused on the specific behaviour that needs addressing (e.g.: the need to accept feedback).
  5. Do not avoid the situation and let underlying issues fester – to do so simply accentuates the feeling of injustice over time as other things occur.

So, what’s a better way of giving tough feedback?

There are many models and techniques, but I believe it starts more simply than that. Let’s go back to our example. How different would the outcome have been if Tanuj had calmly asked Jenn to go into his office with him and opened with: “I can only imagine what you’re feeling right now. If it were me, I might be feeling angry, frustrated, embarrassed… Are any of these true for you?”

A powerful and non-threatening way to allow Jenn to acknowledge she is ready to take responsibility for her behaviour in the meeting (remember she instinctively knew it was wrong).

Through this simple non-confrontational and empathetic opening, Tanuj has started to build trust which creates the space for a dialogue. He could continue by saying: “Often when we’re feeling a strong emotion, we take the path to Everest (one that is worn, narrow, full of hazard and always leads to the same place). It’s okay to feel anger, it’s just not okay to blow up over it. What could you do to take a different path?”

The key in the better way is to acknowledge the individual and then ease into it – don’t start with you need to change (the HR referral was a “you need to change” opener). Start by establishing a safe space, trust and develop rapport. Doing so will allows you to more naturally and comfortably get to “you need to change”. 

Some final words of wisdom on feedback

  1. Help the individual grow. Feedback should always increase the motivation for change not drain them of it.
  2. The individual delivering the feedback should be open. Start by being comfortable and open yourself (that way the recipient will unconsciously match your energy).
  3. Always, always involve the feedback recipient in the problem-solving process. The ideas need to come from them, as should the ways of measuring success – it cements real buy-in.

Gifting meaningful and developmental feedback can trigger genuine personal growth! It is a critical leadership skill to master, because it may be the difference between an individual who contributes powerfully and positively to the organization versus one who feels diminished and unvalued thereby contributing much less. 

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2 comments on “Communication: Tough Feedback that Helps

[…] on a journey to develop his command skills. In doing so, he will learn to lead well, encourage tough conversations, end debate and move on when needed, manage a crisis well and face adversity […]

[…] recognized or not. Could the desire to throw in the towel be because you prefer to avoid tough conversations?  Consider why you seek to avoid conflict. Is it slowing you down? Affecting […]

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