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By Steve Kelman

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Are you caring enough to give tough feedback?

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One of a manager's most difficult, but also most important, jobs is to communicate constructively with an employee about a performance failure or serious mistake. And the people who are bad at this (and I include myself) far outnumber those who do it well.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two kinds of failure paths. There is the avoider, who can't face the prospect of face-to-face criticism and possible confrontation, which means that problems often get swept under the table. And there is the screamer, who brings up the problems, but in a confrontational way that typically just creates defensiveness, withdrawal and resentment from the employee. (For those who are curious, I am prone to the first fault.)

A website run by Harvard Business Review that frequently runs short, practice-oriented columns on management topics, recently published a piece on this topic, called How To Give Tough Feedback that Helps People Grow, by Monique Valcour, an executive coach and professor at a French business school.

Valcour does not believe it is a good idea to surround the critical message with praise for other good things the employee has done – she feels the critical message is too likely to be drowned out and ignored. But she does feel it is important not to put the employee in a defensive position at the beginning. Instead, she suggests the manager should begin the conversation, not require the employee to begin it by giving their version of the story.

She cites a successful communication with an employee that started, according to the employee's description, as follows: "The woman in HR could see that I had a lot of just-under-the-surface feelings, and she acknowledged them. The way she did it was genius: she eased into it. She didn't make me go first. Instead, she said, 'I can only imagine what you're feeling right now. Here you are in my office, in corrective action. If it were me, I might be feeling angry, frustrated, embarrassed… Are any of these true for you?' That made a huge difference. What made it work was establishing a safe space, trust, and rapport, and then getting down to 'you need to change' — rather than starting with 'you need to change.' I did need to change; that was the whole point of the corrective action. But she couldn't start there, because I would have become defensive, shut down and not taken responsibility."

A key part of Valcour's advice is "inviting the employee into the problem-solving process" about the problem. She suggests that "you can ask questions such as: What ideas do you have? What are you taking away from this conversation? What steps will you take, by when, and how will I know?" Valcour contends this step is crucial to making the interaction constructive.

I thought the column was helpful, and the comments the column received from practitioners reflected this; when I posted a link to the column on my Facebook page, one commentator wrote she was taking notes on it.

I would appreciate receiving reactions from blog readers both about what Valcour says, and also about your own experiences, good and bad, giving tough feedback.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 24, 2015 at 10:57 AM

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Reader comments

Sun, Sep 27, 2015

I'd love to see a story on providing feedback about the organization. I'm in the VA and I'd love for FCW to expose how much feedback was given and ignored over the 10 years. You might actually get a lot of feedback that would counter what I'm sure would be agency's position that they've asked for it. In there defense, they did ask for feedback, but they sure only wanted easy to handle feedback. I figure it's worth asking.

Fri, Sep 25, 2015 Arvon

Well said, Professor. But we know that 1. Most feds get no meaningful feedback of any kind. 2. Feds are unskilled in giving feedback. 3. When Feds get bad feedback, they will try to retaliate. 4. Contractors need to avoid giving or getting feedback, because the penalty for questioning or reacting is usually painful. Am afraid your suggestions are unfit for the toxic federal environment, and, indeed, help define why it is toxic.

Fri, Sep 25, 2015 Alina Brouwer Cambridge MA

I have learned quite a few things in business training. 1- Praise in public reprimand in private. 2- Consistent investment in the training of employees helps both employer and employee a great deal. 3- Flexibility when possible in accommodating employees needs goes a long ways. 4- Recognizing good work in public goes a long ways. And there's a host of other preemptive tools that can be used. However when there's a problem I have found that whenever possible the best way to deal with it is to tackle the problem as the event is happening or right afterwards, in a private setting. People learn more from a recent experience faster than from recounting events, for as time passes it's difficult to recollect facts and we start magnifying or simplifying the importance of it. The culture of a company I've found is often brought from the top down, if the CEO is a great CEO such as Richard Branson, employees will be happy and eager to deliver good results. If the culture of a company is one of disdain towards the employees, one can try and solve situations but they won't be receptive and will always be looking for a better gig. I be found that putting myself in people's shoes is the best way to tackle problems. The anecdote you've shared is very good. We function in that way. I think setting relantinship rules from the get go, treating others as we want to be treated and putting the best face to a horrible problem seems to work very effectively. I have also found that being proactive and attentive works best.

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