Toughen up to give tough feedback

Communication  Leadership
16 October, 2023

Overcome your discomfort and get an honest conversation going with your team.

I was recently speaking to a founder who had brought on board a seasoned C-level leader. The executive was struggling to adapt to the ways of working in the company. However, the founder, despite recognizing the need for a candid conversation, was hesitating, and shying away from providing the much-needed direct feedback.

This founder is not alone. Many leaders are afraid to give tough feedback.

What creates this apprehension? Perhaps you’re worried about hurting your rapport with team members. Or you hate conflict? Maybe you just don’t know how to give tough feedback?

It’s true that giving difficult feedback entails challenging conversations, which can be awkward and tense for both parties. But what’s important to realise is this: by not providing tough feedback, you’re not doing anyone any favours.

When problematic behaviours and performance gaps aren’t addressed in time, they can rear their ugly head down the line, leading to failures which could otherwise have been prevented. A lack of timely feedback can prove costly for your team and your company.

What’s more, withholding constructive criticism hinders the individual progress of team members, depriving them of vital learning and growth opportunities. Not to mention the impact on performance-driven bonuses and salary increases.

Saying what needs to be said is an essential skill for anyone in a managerial role. So, this week, my message focuses on how to overcome the fear of giving tough feedback. What are some practical steps you can take to navigate these tricky waters?

Contrary to what you might believe, providing honest input builds trust and engagement. Few managers realise how much their direct reports want to know: “How am I doing?” Workplace surveys consistently find that most employees crave constructive criticism but don’t get it. While 72 percent of respondents rated “managers providing critical feedback” as important for them in career development, only 5 percent believed their managers provide such feedback.

Certainly, delivering tough messages is not easy or pleasant. Even though people want feedback, they aren’t always receptive to it — it can be hard to hear what one is doing wrong. However, managers must learn to deal with this discomfort and offer their inputs in an honest, helpful way. This is a crucial part of the job. As a Forbes article notes:

Trying to spare yourself from giving feedback does a disservice to your employee, your team’s performance and your level of influence as a leader.

Once a year is not enough

Conflict-avoidant managers hold back from voicing their opinion until they are forced to speak up — usually during annual performance reviews. When feedback is given only once a year, critical comments can come as a shock to team members. Naturally, it makes them wonder: “Why didn’t they say something earlier?”

The feedback comes too late for employees to make the necessary changes and improve themselves. The repercussions can be felt across performance-linked bonuses, annual raises, and future prospects. In such situations, feedback becomes a dreaded exercise, filled with potential minefields. Employees often leave the room feeling frustrated, resentful or demotivated, while managers are filled with anxiety both before and after the conversation.

Delivering tough feedback

Here are seven suggestions to help you conquer your fear of giving constructive criticism:

1. Challenge either/or thinking.

Managers may feel apprehensive because they think: “either I give tough feedback, or I protect my relationships with the team”. But this kind of binary thinking is flawed — the two things aren’t mutually exclusive!

The fact is you can be empathetic and assertive at the same time. Offering constructive feedback will not undermine your bond with the team. If anything, it will make them respect you more as they will see that you genuinely care about their success, both individually and collectively. An article published in the Harvard Business Review offers some good advice:

Next time you have to give feedback, take a deep breath and remember, you’re not causing a conflict, you’re guiding your people toward growth. You’re not criticizing; you’re nurturing. And you’re certainly not being a villain; you’re being the leader they need.

2. Shift focus to the positives.

Don’t dwell excessively on the discomfort of delivering feedback. This skews your perspective and makes you underestimate the value of your inputs. Prime yourself for tough conversations by thinking of feedback as a gift and honing on its specific benefits. As the HBR piece mentioned above suggests:

Focus on the potential rewards of clear communication. Not only will voicing your thoughts help you feel more confident, but: 

  • Your input may be exactly what’s needed to drive a challenging assignment to completion
  • That candid comment you make to a coworker about their disruptive behavior could result in a more peaceful, productive work environment.
  • Your constructive criticism could help a team member develop and grow in their role, opening up new career opportunities

 3. Plan for the worst case.

The uncertainty of how a team member may react can increase your anxiety around giving tough feedback. To get past this, think through the various possibilities. What if they start crying? What if they turn defensive? What if they become confrontational? How will you handle it?

Consider different ways in which you could respond. It may be helpful to practice with a trusted peer whose managerial instincts you admire. Preparing for extreme eventualities will make it easier to deal with the reality, which will probably be far less dramatic.

4. Share your intention.

A good way to start the conversation is to verbalise your intention. For example, “I want you to succeed at this project, which is why I’m sharing this with you” or “I want to discuss a few concerns, with the goal of making sure you’re well-prepared for the next stage of your career”. By clearly stating the context, you immediately defuse any ill-will and establish a positive tone for the discussion ahead.

5. Use the SBI model.

Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, the Situation-Behaviour-Impact framework offers an effective way to deliver feedback. Begin by describing the situation (e.g. “During Monday’s team meeting, when you gave a presentation…”), followed by the behaviour you observed (e.g. “I noticed incorrect forecast numbers on two slides”), and finally the impact (e.g. “I’m concerned that these errors could cause confusion in the team and impact your reputation for accuracy.”).

Avoid being vague, quoting hearsay or making assumptions. Follow up with questions to uncover why this happened and getting the other person’s perspective. Emphasise that the goal is not to play the blame game but to work together to find a positive solution.

6. Embed feedback into your process.

To unlock the many rewards of constructive criticism, managers must provide it on an ongoing basis — not just once in 365 days. This will also help take the stress and surprise out of annual performance reviews, since relevant issues will be identified and discussed through the year.

Make feedback part and parcel of your team’s working routine through regularly scheduled one-on-ones. After just 2-3 sessions, team members will know what to expect and be able to receive your inputs more productively. Plus, as you build your feedback skills in everyday low-stakes situations, you will also become more confident of voicing your concerns in high-stakes scenarios.

7. Practice what you preach.

A manager who welcomes constructive criticism sets the best precedent for their team. Solicit feedback from your direct reports as well as your immediate supervisor — and be open to receiving it in good faith. Share with your team how you are working on your identified areas of improvement.

Delivering tough feedback can be a daunting task, especially for managers who are inherently conflict averse. However, it’s certainly worth having those difficult conversations. The potential gains — for you, for the team and for the organisation — are too great to simply give up before you even get started.

So, are you ready to face down your fear of giving feedback?


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