Giving and Receiving Feedback
Preparing for a Forthright Employee Discussion
Although few of us likes to confront, challenge, or even criticize another person, even when it is justified, we inevitably have to have these conversations from time to time, especially if we are a leader and it is therefore best to be prepared before we do. In this way, we are more likely to conduct these discussions in a manner that results in a positive outcome for both parties and minimizes any feelings of discomfort. When handled correctly, a confrontation can even be a positive experience for all with any feelings of defensiveness or negativity minimized or eliminated altogether. It can even build trust and respect between parties over time when handled well.
While the steps for preparing for what we’ll call a “forthright” discussion with an employee will vary from one leader to the next and be governed heavily by what you have to say and to whom, there are a number of tips about doing this that seem to apply to most situations as follows:
1: Separate facts from assumptions
As a leader we may want to have a forthright conversation because of what we often see as “black and white” facts (the person was late, absent, missed deadlines, failed to produce a report etc.). However, our views are almost always colored by assumptions as to why these events occurred, including that we were clear about the standards of performance we expected in the first place. In addition, we may “invent” reasons about the other party’s apparent performance shortfalls that may not be appropriate (such as he or she is lazy, lacking in a given skill or distracted). These assumptions tend to undermine the conversation when presented and we should try not to talk about them and simply point to the facts. We can then ask open questions to let the other party describe what he or she think happened.
2: Don’t seek an outcome in which you are “right” they are “wrong”
The objective of a forthright discussion isn’t to arrive at subjective judgments like “right” or “wrong” and certainly not to apportion blame. Instead the goal should be to have a joint discussion to “dig into” the issue or issues most of concern and to determine why there is any gap at all in terms of expectations. To avoid this right/wrong judgment and language, the calm and enquiring tone that a leader sets at the beginning of the conversation is very important.
3: Don’t live with mediocrity or delay giving feedback
Many leaders prefer to be “harmony-seeking” or they might say “team-oriented” as much as they can and therefore broadly non-confrontational when it comes to under-performance of any kind. But these issues and unwanted levels of mediocrity, when left unaddressed, act as a spreading “cancer” and problems only grow in size and make the eventual conversation even tougher to have with the individual concerned. Leaders should therefore address performance issues almost as soon as they arise. This way issues can be addressed with little rancor and performance normalized quickly in most cases.
4: Accept that the situation will be uncomfortable for both parties
It is natural for both parties in an expected difficult conversation to have lots of trepidation or even to “catastrophize” abut the possible outcomes. This is a natural “fight or flight” reaction and it affects both parties, not just the receiver. The “trick” here is to accept that these feelings are going to be present for both people in the conversation and accept it. You might even point out the awkwardness by saying something at the outset like, “I know this is an awkward/difficult situation for both of us but my goal is to find solutions and work with you collaboratively-is that OK?”
5: Appreciate that some conflict and confrontation Is healthy
In addition to the wider organizational benefits of some conflict and confrontation (when calmly handled of course) which actually helps greater innovation to occur according to considerable research in the past 20 years, difficult conversations can allow both parties to get information “off-their chests” and start to realize that there were hidden issues which colored perceptions. This realization often helps to de-stress one or both parties and stop the worrying over the long term because it is now in the open.
Giving straight feedback or having forthright conversations with employees is not an easy thing to do. However, if we reflect on what’s to be achieved in terms of best possible outcomes, plan for the discussion carefully and try to pay attention to all five tips described above, when they do occur they are likely to go a lot more smoothly than you think and even strengthen your relationship with the other person. Don’t forget, feedback is a gift.