What’s it like to be on the delivering end of a tough feedback conversation? In a recent conversation we had, a leader described his experience:
Q: What do you do to prepare when you have tough feedback to deliver to a subordinate?
A: I am super focused. I keep telling myself “be honest, and be totally direct.”
Q:Is it easy to be totally direct and honest with another person about their performance?
A: No, I want to tell them what they want to hear, but they need the truth. They need to clearly understand what’s really going on and how that affects me and everyone else in the team.
Q: Are you assuming that they don’t realize there’s a problem?
A: Of course! If they realized there was a problem then I would not have to straighten them out.
Q: Are you nervous? Do you find this difficult?
This is the absolute worst part of my job – I really have a hard time doing this. I can’t wait for it to be over.
Q: What’s your plan for the feedback session?
A: Shock and Awe! Get in the room, deliver my message, tell them what needs to change, and then get them out of my office!
When you consider how difficult it is to receive corrective feedback and then how hard it is for your boss to deliver it, you begin to see how truly challenging it is for both of you to have a meaningful and constructive conversation. A good place to start, we believe, is to examine some of the unwarranted assumptions our research shows many bosses have made that make the job even harder than need be.
Assumption 1: People don’t realize there is a problem
We asked a global sample of 3,875 people who’d received negative or redirecting feedback if they were surprised or had not known already about the problem that was raised. We were taken aback to discover that fully 74% indicated that they had known and were not surprised.
Very often, when we see someone performing poorly we say to ourselves, “If they only realized they had a problem they would do better.” But most of the time, that’s simply not so. A struggling employee may not realize how serious the problem is, but more likely, he or she is very much aware but hasn’t figured out how to do better. That means that simply pointing out the problem isn’t going to be all that helpful.
Assumption 2: It’s best to get it over quickly
Because both the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it are anxious, they both want to get it over quickly. That’s understandable: the human organism is wired to avoid pain. In practical terms, this usually means a meeting where the manager does a lot of talking and the subordinate remains silent. This might seem like the quickest and the kindest way to get things over with (on both sides), but it’s a terrible mistake.
In the global study we also asked respondents to rate how well managers “carefully listened to the other person’s point of view about a problem before giving them feedback” and how effective the feedback was that their manager gave them. The graph below shows how strong the relationship is between these two factors. Simply put, the less people felt their managers listened to them, the more likely they were to believe that their managers were not being honest and straightforward. One could look at this the other way too – that is, those who felt strongly that their managers listened to them rated them high on their ability to give honest feedback.
In this assessment we also asked people whether they preferred — or wished to avoid — receiving negative feedback. In previous research we had found that people generally want to receive negative feedback, which they see as essential to their development, although managers generally prefer not to deliver it. But in this case, we found that subordinates whose managers did not listen to their point of view before offering up feedback were significantly less interested in receiving negative feedback.
So if shock and awe is a bad way to go, what would work better? We suggest managers begin by putting themselves in the place of their subordinates (which shouldn’t be hard, since after all everyone in an organization is subordinate to someone). Ask yourself as you prepare for that tough feedback session if your boss were giving you negative feedback, how would you like to receive it?
Would you like him to blast you with an intense and brief barrage of words, or would you prefer to be asked questions about the situation? Say, for instance, your boss was pointing out some specific mistake you’d just made: Would you want your boss to have his say and get it all over with? Or would you prefer to be given the opportunity to explain the circumstances and reconstruct what you were thinking at the time? Then, would you rather be told how to correct the situation? Or would you prefer to offer your own ideas for how you might do things differently next time? If you did that, would you then hope that your boss would offer support, advice, and some needed resources to help you? And if he said, “I will check back with you next week to see how things are going,” would that help keep you on track?”
It is something of a paradox that we crave constructive feedback and the same time we don’t want to give it. Perhaps getting past that paradox is a matter of remembering, when it’s your turn to be the giver, that it’s really so much better to receive. We can all think of some feedback that has been a gift – advice that has helped us perform better and made us more successful. When it comes to giving the gift of feedback, it’s worth the effort of putting yourself in the receiver’s frame of mind.