When you need to give critical feedback: 7 tips to keep in mind

Despite our current situation, work moves forward. We need to understand needs, produce solutions, manage processes, provide customer service or make the next sale. Throughout our work lives, we will give and receive praise. We also may receive feedback that indicates we could have done something better. This happens at all levels regardless of where you sit in the organization.

When we receive feedback that is not 100% sunshine and puppy dogs, we might feel bad about it. We may even beat ourselves up about it. In order for us to grow and develop as adults, we need feedback. As the person delivering the feedback, it may be extremely uncomfortable. As the person hearing the feedback, it can be equally challenging.

Once, I inherited a team member who only received glowing praise and high-percentage salary increases. When he came to me, he was taking on a higher level role that required him to stretch. I started to see areas where he could do better, areas where he simply needed to receive some coaching. When I asked his former manager if he saw any of these opportunities, the answer was: “Yes. He really isn’t too good at enrolling people in his ideas. He tends to pout when things don’t go his way.” Ugh! I asked if at any time he gave the employee that feedback. “Oh no. I didn’t want to discourage him or make him feel bad.”

So, let me share this with all of the managers out there. As uncomfortable as it is, you have a responsibility to help a team member improve, grow and develop. If you work in an organization where people have opportunities to move around (which is wonderful!), you owe it to not only the employee but the next manager to help that person be successful.

I was very disheartened to hear that this person had displayed these areas to grow for years but his manager was too afraid to give the feedback needed to help him do it.

Even after a fair number of years in the workplace, I still receive feedback. I take it for what it is….well intentioned assistance to help me become better.  In fact, I would say, even as a learning and development professional, that feedback is one of the best ways to learn. It is personal coming from someone who wants us to succeed.

As managers, we shouldn’t shy away from delivering feedback. It is our obligation to do so. In my example above, this employee really struggled when I actually did deliver constructive feedback. He was so upset because he had never been told anything but how awesome he was. The truth is, he was awesome, but he had some areas to recognize and some habits to unlearn. This does not make someone “bad”. It makes him human. I actually did feel badly about the feedback as he was truly shaken. If only he had heard the feedback years ago when it would have meant something. Instead, the other manager’s fear did not set him up for success.

Delivering critical feedback can be hard. I don’t want to dismiss this. When I was a new manager, I think I actually was shaking when I had to put my first employee on a performance improvement plan because she was being flat out insubordinate in very explicit ways. This is not easy but here are some things to keep in mind when you need to help someone.

  1. Have a mindset of helpfulness. When I was shaking during my first performance improvement plan (PIP), it was because I was thinking about that as a punishment. I wasn’t comfortable being a disciplinarian; I just wanted to do good and have a team who performed well without any hiccups. If I would have had a mindset that feedback, even a PIP, is a means to help the employee, I don’t think I would have been as unnerved. A PIP is not a short exit ramp out of the company; it is truly meant to help the employee get back on track. We need to have the same approach to feedback. You want to help the person be successful. Feedback is one of the best ways to do that.
  2. Be specific. When giving feedback, it is best to have examples. You may have learned this in any manager training class. While it is one of the biggest tips shared with managers, I still see that many managers don’t do it. No doubt it takes effort to document or note examples. It is easier to just give sweeping statements. But, to truly learn and apply the feedback, you have to give context and context comes from specific examples.
  3. Be direct. Sometimes when we have to deliver feedback, we can squirm or dance all around the issue. Try and resist this. Being direct and succinct is the best way. If you are a “pull the bandaid slowly” person, resist that. Be direct and pull off the bandaid. It may sting a little bit but for a much shorter timeframe. The best way to do this (and I have done this!) is to write down what you want to say. I often have bullet points in front of me. I share that I have bullet points and why I write them down — to be clear so the team member knows what I am saying.
  4. Be confident. Confidence will also help with being specific and direct. Practicing can build confidence. Have the right mindset, write it down and say it out loud. If you waiver on what you are saying, that will send a mixed message and create uncertainty for your team member.
  5. Be kind. While you are being specific and direct, you can be kind. Acknowledge that this might be tough to hear. Acknowledge that you are trying to help them. Being direct doesn’t not mean being void of empathy.
  6. Ask for their input. A great way to deliver feedback is to actually have a conversation instead of delivering one-way statements. Ask your team member how he felt about the situation or his skills. Oftentimes, your team member knows he can be better and may even have ideas on how to improve. It is always better if he comes to this realization on his own. You can lead him there with examples and questions.
  7. Don’t serve Oreos. Oreos were invented in 1912 — so was the “Oreo cookie” approach to delivering feedback. Don’t deliver a “sandwich” of a positive, a negative and a positive. This takes away from the feedback that the employee needs to hear. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t be kind or can’t end on a positive note. But, slipping in the critical feedback amongst glowing feedback can be missed and send mixed messages. Be clear and separate feedback you are delivering so the message is understood.

It can be uncomfortable delivering feedback. I know. I have felt that way. By having feedback be a conversation with a clear point and clear examples can only help your team member be successful in his current role and in future roles within the organization. We can’t be afraid of feedback. We need to embrace it and consider it one of our main strategies for helping people grow and develop.

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