Giving negative feedback can be a daunting task. It does not help even if we rename it “constructive feedback” or “area for improvement.”
Managers hope their team members can own up and improve the concerning behaviors upon receiving feedback. However, their responses are not always positive. Sometimes, there are disputes, defenses, or even silent dismissal – nothing changes for the better, crack shows up in their relationship, and the team member becomes visibly demotivated.
When Sugarcoating Fail
Cautious of a bad outcome, some managers hold back negative feedback altogether and live in remorse for “not doing the right thing.”
Some resort to sugarcoating. Some engage the “sandwich” method, making sure to cushion the negative message with something positive both before and after.
Many managers shared that the “sandwich” method hardly makes much difference, except for making themselves feel better. Beyond the soft tone and sweet words, employees are suspicious and can be looking for a “real agenda” following the word “but.”
Are there no effective ways of giving feedback, then?
Coaches give feedback all the time. The entire coaching practice is built on effective feedback that will invoke awareness, accountability, and change in people. We can borrow some of the coaching principles to deliver work feedback.
Principle 1: Create an Open Space
Change is a challenging process. Even the most open-minded person will feel the initial unease and natural resistance when confronted with a need to change. Our feedback can land as an attack when the receiver is not mentally ready.
Therefore, creating an open and trusted space from the start is crucial. The biggest enemy to having an open space is a closed mind of yours. In other words, it is tough to offer an open space if you come with a fixed view of things, e.g., your version of what has happened, what the causes are, and what the necessary actions are.
Prepare your mind to be open to possibilities. No matter how wise and observant you are, you could never have captured all the truth.
Park your agenda. Be curious. As long as you embrace one version of the truth, keeping the other person’s interest in your mind will be hard. You might come to the meeting with some thoughts, suggestions, and solutions. Park them as well until the employee is ready for it or actively seeks your recommendations.
Instead, trust the team member with their resourcefulness. Be curious to learn how they look at the situation and what constructive solutions they can come up with.
“I could be wrong.” Establish clear expectations for an ongoing open and honest relationship. Telling the other person your potential fallacy is an excellent gesture to invite them to share different realities. With this, you express your willingness to listen and have your views changed or amended.
Principle 2: Hold Unconditional Positive Regard
We mustn’t sugarcoat or beat around the bush when communicating crucial facts. Be direct about it even if it strikes hard. When you share facts, there will be no space for dispute. Being direct also helps to reinforce the honest, open atmosphere, telling the other party that you are ready to hear the hard truth.
When sharing facts, beware of the emotions you carry.
“Our project is behind schedule for three weeks, and key stakeholders are showing concerns.”
This is factual.
“Our project seems way behind schedule. Many people are making a lot of noise. What the hell have we been doing?”
This is emotion.
Beneath our anger, we assume that the team member is capable of the work but has no motivation to do his best or is just lazy.
The reality is often that the employee wants to do the work well. It’s just that something is hindering their motivation, competence, or confidence. As a result, they become incapable of delivering your expectations.
Holding the employee in unconditional positive regard creates mental safety. It encourages the person to share their challenges and paves the road for collaborative problem-solving. This approach also helps you separate undesirable behaviors from the person’s intent.
Principle 3: Tie the Negative to Strength
Converting the negative to strength is not another way of sugarcoating. Just like every strength has a shadow, every negative has its silver lining.
For example, indecisiveness can hurt in many situations, but the other part of the story is the same person is deliberating, prudent, and potentially meticulous. These are productive traits in many different cases.
It’s easy to get stuck in a tunnel vision and think that whatever is not working now is bad and needs to be “fixed.” This “fixing” mentality brings up people’s defense.
Instead, acknowledge the traits the employee has, both good and bad. Enquire if the person relates to this observation. If yes, how is this trait helping and not helping them in the current work situations? What can they do to self-regulate in these particular circumstances?
Principle 4: Trust the Employee’s Resilience
Even when we come with an open mindset, hold unconditional positive regard for the employee, and always tie the negative to strength, the employee may still experience discomfort.
It is natural to have discomfort. We need to trust the employee’s resilience – people have the surprising power of healing from negative emotions and growing. Similarly, know that great relationships do not develop smoothly without conflicts. Think about Kintsugi: an art of laminating cracks in porcelain with gold.
Don’t hold back feedback. If you do, you rid the other person of the opportunity to confront reality and grow. At the same time, you also denied the business a potentially better outcome.
Principle 5: Give Space for Accountability
Many managers are frustrated that the employees “won’t take their suggestions.”
Think about it: if the manager talks about the facts and observations, presents some diagnosis on the root cause, and then offers suggestions for fixing that, how much space does the employee have? And how can the employee take ownership as the manager wishes?
Nobody likes to accept a diagnosis. For the employee to take ownership, we must allow a space.
Invite for collaboration to find the real challenge behind the business results and behaviors. Tap on the employee’s resourcefulness to find solutions for this situation. Share your recommendations when asked or as an add-on. Only when we let the employee lead the solutioning process can they feel the accountability.
There is one caveat, though. We can only ask the team member to be accountable for what they can control – their behaviors and actions, not a particular business outcome. In most cases, business results are determined by many factors than one person’s action. Loading the expectation of business results on one person can backfire because it’s unrealistic and unfair. They will point at the uncontrollable factors and deny they could ever move the needles. In other words, it provides the person an opportunity to escape from accountability.
Instead, discuss what’s controllable – their behaviors. What can they do in the rough market? How can they show up differently in their daily work? What kind of positive impact can they potentially generate?