Initiating Sensitive Feedback Conversations

by Sandy Wilder

Have you ever found it difficult to initiate a conversation with an associate where you need to give some feedback on their performance? It can be nerve racking since you may not be sure how they will respond. You hope for the best result, but are not sure how to bring that about. This article will help you get your butterflies to fly “in formation.” Here's a simple three-step process to use in the preparation and initiation of these conversations.

Three Step Process Described

1.  Begin with the Purpose and Benefit

In coaching meetings where you are giving feedback to associates, it is important to explain your purpose up front. To ensure that your purpose statement encourages them to listen, include a benefit relevant to the associate. This shows you have their interests in mind, which may increase their receptivity to feedback.

If you are aware of what's important to them (their personal and/or career aspirations or vision, values, purpose in life, etc.), then tailor your purpose statement appropriately.

Here are four examples of purpose statements from a situation about a recently transferred manager named Pete. He is focused so much on the technical side of his work that he is coming across as non-listening, cold and distant.

  •  “Pete, I'd like to speak with you about how you can apply your incredibly disciplined work habits to do more good for the company…”
  • “Pete, I wanted to see you so we could talk about how important your new position is to the department…”
  • “Pete, can we talk a few minutes about the kind of support and coaching your team needs from you as their new leader?”
  • “Pete, I wanted to speak with you about how you could be a more effective leader and team builder…”
Any of these statements would get Pete's attention because they all lead with a benefit. A leader who is aware of what's important to Pete can help Pete want to improve. This leader is communicating with the other person in mind, not just doling out feedback.

2.  Describe the Situation

Your goal in giving feedback is to help associates gain more self-awareness and then decide to change their behavior. The way in which the feedback is given can greatly impact their receptivity. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

Describe the behavior in specific terms before giving your reaction to it.

  • “Your attention span in our team meetings seems very short. I have noticed you reading the newspaper while others are presenting. (Pause) This concerns me a lot.”
Rather than:    
  • “I am concerned about your attention span in our team meetings. I have noticed…

Describe the behavior rather than evaluate or judge the person.

  • “I have noticed that in many of our office meetings, you interrupt people. (Pause) This concerns me because…”
Rather than:    
  • “You bother me when you interrupt people in our office meetings.”

The above techniques may seem subtle and unimportant. But, anything you can do to show that you are concerned about the choices they have made (what they are doing), and not about them as people (their being), will help associates hear feedback more objectively. Your goal is to help them take responsibility for their actions and not confuse what they have done with who they are.

Describe things that the associate has the capacity to change.

  • Avoid feedback on physical characteristics or life circumstances.

Give feedback in small amounts.

  • “When you kept interrupting the speaker by talking onyour cell phone during his presentation, it was very distracting for him and us.”
Rather than:
  • “When you kept interrupting the speaker by talking on your cell phone during his presentation, it was very distracting for him and us. In addition you have been leaving the office early each day and your expense reports have been impossible to read. It is really hard to work with you!”

Describe current and specific behaviors.

  • “You said you were going to ask for suggestions from the team, but instead you made your decision without our input. This appears inconsistent.”
Rather than:  
  • “You are always so inconsistent. You never ask for suggestions from the team on important decisions, even though you said you would.”

3.  Describe Why the Situation Concerns You

Leading with the purpose and describing the situation are important, but not sufficient. You can't stop there. You also need to describe why the situation concerns you. Explain its impact on cost on productivity, morale, customer impression, revenue/profitability, etc.

If you have major concerns about the situation, you need to let them know why. This is not an invitation for an angry tirade, but rather an opportunity to describe the significance of this incident and its impact on the individual, other associates, and/or the organization.

The Three Steps Applied

Here's how the three steps would sound in a possible situation at work.

  • You are a unit manager. Recently, there has been a great deal of downsizing and restructuring within your division. So far, your unit has remained intact. The only effect has been an increased workload as you absorb some of the projects of the affected units.
  • Jenny is a 20-year employee whom you have had the pleasure of managing for the last five years. Since the restructuring began about a year ago, she has demonstrated a great deal of teamwork, flexibility and willingness to pitch in. In fact, she has often been the first to offer her assistance on just about any project.
  • It's important to Jenny that she be recognized for contributions. She has told you that she's working to be seen by her peers as a strong role model and leader.
  • While you deeply appreciate Jenny's attitude, you have had to speak with her on three separate occasions about performance problems relating to the extra work. In the first instance she submitted the final version of an important report on the telecommuting project, which included glaring discrepancies in the data. Then, just two weeks later, she missed a deadline on her “regular” work, and another on a special project she had acquired.
  • In every one of the coaching sessions that followed, Jenny was emphatic about holding on to the work, reassuring you that these mistakes and missed dates would not occur again.
  • You are sitting at your desk on Friday afternoon. The telecommuting project report, which Jenny submitted after making corrections, is in front of you. You've just discovered that the narrative attached to the data contradicts the numbers. You must speak with Jenny—now.
Using the three steps outlined above, here are actual words you could use to initiate the dialogue:

1.  Begin with the Purpose and Benefit
  • “Jenny, I'd like to talk with you about how you can be a stronger role model and leader on your team. While your attitude is always very positive and you are willing to take on more, today I want to look at your consistency when it comes to deadlines and accuracy.”

2.  Describe the Situation
  • “As we have recently spoken about on three separate occasions, there have been missed deadlines or major discrepancies in your part of the reports you've submitted. I have just now discovered that the narrative in the telecommuting project report you handed in contradicts the numbers.”

3.  Describe Why the Situation Concerns You
  • “I'm extremely concerned about this because it makes the team look unprofessional, lengthens the time we're spending on the project, and could ultimately result in us missing the deadline. It also reflects poorly on you and gives the team a reason to question the quality of your work and leadership…Your thoughts?”

With this brief prep, you won't need to spend hours ruminating and you'll feel better prepared for the conversation. I suggest that you literally write down the actual words you could say so that you have it scripted. You can then memorize it and be flexible with the wording as needed.

The next step is to really listen to their perspective, before reinforcing yours. That's the topic of a future article.

The following quote captures the spirit of this approach. It is from Max De Pree, the highly respected former chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., which was named one of Fortune magazine's ten “best managed” and “most innovative” companies.

  • “One of a leader's chief responsibilities is to initiate action. Leaders can then help people respond in a way that honors the personal dignity of everyone and that gives each person the space to be what she can be.”
So, to bring out the best in your associates, and set up the conversation for a positive result, try initiating the conversation with these three steps.
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.