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Giving effective feedback
Aug 3, 2013

Giving effective feedback

"The more feedback you give to people, the better it is, as long as the feedback is objective and not critical"

- Brian Tracy

We all know the feeling. Someone in your office, or on your team, is not performing to expectations. It might be how they answer the phone, deal with clients or suppliers. They might not be pulling their weight, not keeping filing up to date. Or there may be more serious performance issues. It could be any one of a number of things. It starts off as a bit annoying. You think it will get better - they'll work it out. Then it becomes more annoying or the behaviour actually gets worse. It is starting to affect other people in the office - not just the particular issue, but soon staff are complaining loudly that you're not dealing with it. How do you overcome the very natural aversion to conflict or having a difficult conversation?

This article will give you tips on how to have that difficult conversation you would rather not have. It will not deal with formal performance management, which will be the subject of another article.

  • First of all, remind yourself that performance issues don't get better on their own. If staff are not aware there is a problem they will assume they are doing the right thing. In fact, if not addressed, the problem often becomes worse.
  • Check up on your own concerns about confronting the issue. Ask yourself 'What's the worst that can happen'. They might become upset, angry or completely shut down. If you're prepared for the worst, then anything else is easy to deal with. If you are also the sort of person that likes to be liked, acknowledge that - but also acknowledge that you can still be likeable if you deal with a difficult issue in a professional, and empathetic way.
  • Make it timely - address it early, and preferably close to an example of the problem behaviour. For example if a staff member is required to complete a particular task on a particular day each week, and regularly misses it, address it at the next opportunity. If a piece of work submitted to you is not satisfactory, think about how you will have the discussion and address it promptly - don't wait a week.
  • Get the geography right. Never give constructive or negative feedback in front of others. If possible, try not to have the discussion across a desk as this can impede an open conversation. Even better, if you can get out of the office altogether, it takes some of the office tension away, and also relieves the staff member of any embarrassment. You would be surprised how mush easier one of these conversations is, being done over a coffee, or by going for a walk.
  • If you are able to, give positive feedback to the staff member about their performance first. Feedback given in an environment of trust, with good intentions, where the employee feels valued, is much more likely to be accepted.
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person. Make sure they understand the impact the behaviour has on others, you, or the business.
  • Make sure you have some concrete examples or feedback from others to support your views.
  • Frame the conversation beforehand - be very clear in your own mind about the result you want to achieve. No one likes receiving negative feedback, and sometimes the recipient will derail the conversation with excuses, blame or denial (more about that in future articles). So it's a good idea, to be very clear in your own mind about how the conversation will start and progress to the result you need, which is the staff member accepting the problem and committing to making some changes. No matter how often you find yourself going off on a tangent, come back to the main issue.
  • Be empathetic if they become upset but firm in the need for improvement, e.g. 'I know this must be difficult for you, but ultimately this is an important issue that needs improvement and I'm confident that can be achieved'.
  • Check their understanding of the issues before ending on a positive note, ie, expressing confidence in their ability to improve. Don't give more positive feedback, as this can be confusing and dilute the message. But it is ok to be positive in closing the conversation, eg 'you're a valuable employee, and I'm sure that now you're aware of our expectations, you will continue to improve'.
  • Be open to taking some feedback yourself - ask if there is anything you, or anyone else in the team, can do to help the situation. It may be that something you are doing or the way the job is structured, is not helping them.
  • Agree to follow up again in a specific timeframe and if improvements are noticed, make sure that is acknowledged in a timely way, even before any formal meeting.

Coming up in future articles - how to deal with objections, the benefits of positive feedback, formal performance appraisals, and performance management.