By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Are you caring enough to give tough feedback?

Image: Shutterstock

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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