How to be open with your feedback, especially when it's hard

A 3-step process for delivering tough feedback

For open leaders, giving and receiving honest feedback is unavoidable. This process makes it less stressful.

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Seventeen years ago, I'd earned my first leadership role and become responsible for roughly ten direct reports. Two weeks into the role, my boss took me for a coffee to chat about how things were going.

"I'm not getting what I need from you," she said.

The statement left no ambiguity, no wiggle room, and no space for interpretation. She let it hang in the air for a moment. When I acknowledged it, she followed it up with direct examples of what she needed and what she was seeing.

I now realize it was the first proper coaching session of my career.

Too often, managers withhold tough feedback because they worry it will negatively affect an employee. The reality, however, is that failing to have tough conversations with people actually does them a disservice. People deserve to know where they stand. They deserve an opportunity to improve. They deserve a chance to address perceptions of their performance.

The alternative is avoiding the temporary stress (mostly yours) and letting someone float through their career unaware of the things that could be holding them back. Those things will eventually catch up to them through missed opportunities, stagnant salary, or feedback that seems unexpected or unfair.

In open organizations, the kind of honest, clear, and direct feedback my manager once gave me should be the norm. If people in these organizations can hope to maintain a high degree of adaptability, they need this kind of feedback.

But delivering it can be a frightening prospect for any manager. So how do you get started?

I'll share a simple approach that has worked well for me. It consists of three easy-to-remember steps:

  • Prepare
  • Stay on message
  • Follow through

1. Prepare

Remember that a coaching session is an investment in helping your people succeed and grow. Spending a bit of time preparing your feedback helps you clarify the message you want to deliver, keep the meeting on track, and (hopefully) lower your stress levels.

As you prepare, keep these priorities in mind:

  • Focus on a specific behavior
  • Provide recent and concrete examples
  • Show how the behavior is causing unwanted outcomes
  • Outline your expectations

If you don't have recent examples, then perhaps you've been putting this conversation off for too long. In that case, I'd advise you not to have it. Failing to address something that occurred three months ago was your stumble, not someone else's. If the behavior continues to be an issue in the future, then you'll have another chance to address it when the matter is fresh.

Too often, managers withhold tough feedback because they worry it will negatively affect an employee. The reality, however, is that failing to have tough conversations with people actually does them a disservice.

If you're new to delivering feedback, take some time to rehearse how the conversation might go. You can do it in front of a mirror, in the car, while walking the dog, silently in your head—whatever technique works for you. But get comfortable with the content. Don't let your remarks appear scripted, but get to a point where you don't need to read from your notes to hit key points.

Now it's time to have the meeting. Reach out, let the person know you'd like to talk, and meet with them immediately. Try to avoid scheduling a meeting that seems out of the blue or centers on a vague topic; that'll create extra stress for both of you.

Now that the meeting has started, stay on message.

2. Stay on message

Naturally, you'll find delivering tough feedback to be intimidating. Most employees are surprised to find out they are not meeting expectations, so you can expect some initial tension, disappointment, and letdown. In the midst of the tension—and while watching someone struggling—your gut reaction will likely be to console them.

Don't.

They need to feel the impact of your feedback. The biggest mistake you can make at this point is going off message by watering down the seriousness of the issue or throwing in some positive feedback to make you both feel better. Doing this only confuses the message and will likely delay someone's progress in addressing it. Instead of going off message, let the silences linger a little if you need. It may feel awkward, but you'll both survive.

Remember the outcome you desire from this conversation: A clear understanding, agreement on the issue, and acknowledgment that your report is responsible for addressing it. Remember, too, that the conversation is not a debate. During that initial tension, your report may go on the offensive and attempt to either counter your feedback or explain it away. You know its a real issue, so be firm and shut down debate.

Keep the meeting short—just enough time to clearly communicate the message, work through the examples, and reiterate expectations. Sometimes, your report will be immediately accepting and want to dive into solutions for addressing shortcomings. If you can make the meeting a productive working session, then go for it. But more often you'll need to allow the person some time to truly digest what you've said. You'll be following up (see below), so don't worry. You can spend more time helping them along.

Finish with a commitment—from both of you—to work on and support the changes. Then let your report know you'll be following up with an email for their reference.

3. Follow through

You survived! Good news: the hardest part is probably over. The next time you face the situation it should be easier. But the work is really just beginning.

I think of this last phase of work, following up, in three phases:

  • Immediate
  • Short-term
  • Long-term

Immediate

Immediately—as in, when you get back to your desk—summarize the key points in an email and send it to the person. If need be, you can draft this note in advance of the meeting and modify it based on your actual conversation. Keep it short and direct. Use bullet points. Incorporate phrases like "as we discussed" to make clear that you had the conversation together. Reiterate their acknowledgment of the issue. End with a statement about your intention to support them.

Remember the outcome you desire from this conversation: A clear understanding, agreement on the issue, and acknowledgment that your report is responsible for addressing it.

Then send it only to them. Copying other people that were not in the conversation will unnecessarily heighten its severity. Forward it to your manager or HR department separately if you believe they need to know about the conversation. This gives you both a record of the conversation, something to refer back to in the future as you work together on the behavior in question. It also serves as "evidence" of the coaching if you need to take more serious action down the road. Make this a habit throughout your coaching, for both positive and challenging feedback.

Short-term

Make a point to check in with this person the next day and reaffirm your compassion: "I know it was tough feedback. How are you feeling?" This conversation should not be as tense as your previous one since the surprise and defensiveness should be gone. Checking in goes a long way to building the trust necessary for continuing to coaching them. Just remember that it's still not a coddling session.

Now is the time to really demonstrate your commitment to coaching. Watch for similar situations to arise and observe how the person responds to them. More than ever, you need to be timely with your feedback so that you reinforce the positive behavior and identify specific instances where they're not meeting expectations.

The advice above is short and straightforward—but it is continuous and will occur over several weeks. So be diligent and stay the course. Remember: you're committed to helping, and you have the person's attention. Now is the time to capitalize on the investment you've made.

Long-term

When you observe your report demonstrating desirable behavior consistently, there isn't much left to do. Just watch for slips and provide feedback quickly to prevent a return to former habits.

Why is there no middle term? The timeline improving the behavior needs to be tangible. Don't draw it out over months. If you've provided the coaching, offered a clear message, and provided examples, then you should expect to see the improvement fairly quickly or be prepared to take stronger action.

Experience has taught me that most people will rise to meet expectations if given the chance. And for the few who don't, there should be no surprises down the road.

As for me: I did my part and acted on my manager's feedback, reflecting on the examples and changing my approach. Then, after another couple of weeks, she took me for another coffee. This time, she led with a smile and said: "Keep doing what you're doing."

That 10 minutes of coaching impacted my career and my understanding of open leadership. I like to think I would have figured it out on my own, but it would have been a lot harder.

Do you owe anyone a cup of coffee and an open conversation?

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About the author

Matt MacKinnon - After spending years in the trenches as a Java developer, my career has been focused on building teams as I explore the world of leadership. Lately, I have been looking for ways to contribute back to the leadership community through writing and sharing my stories. I'm an enthusiastic proponent of finding your personal and professional boundaries and giving them a push. I tend to be happiest when challenging individuals to learn something about themselves by coaching them through that process.