Giving Feedback Can Be Stressful, But Do It Anyway

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Dec 16, 2019

Does the thought of giving negative feedback make your heart race and your palms sweat? Would you rather avoid your direct report than tell them their performance is lacking?

You’re not alone. Giving feedback can be stressful. Many of us have a strong fear of conflict, or we fear that giving negative feedback will result in us being disliked. Because of these fears, many managers avoid giving negative feedback, and as more young professionals grow into management and leadership roles, the number of managers who are uncomfortable giving critical feedback may continue to grow.

That’s a serious problem for companies because without feedback, employees can’t improve. It means that our fear of confrontation or not being liked is costing employees valuable opportunities to grow as professionals. Employees deserve to get that feedback, and managers are doing their direct reports a disservice by not providing it.

In fact, evidence shows that the fear is completely one-sided. While many managers dislike giving critical feedback, or avoid it altogether, employees prefer corrective feedback over praise and recognition. For some, it’s about engagement — 70% of employees said feeling empowered to address a problem was critical for their engagement. For others, it’s about growth — 57% felt the need to leave their current company to take their career to the next level.

That means failure to offer constructive feedback, even when it’s critical, could be costing you great employees who will find what they need elsewhere. To avoid that risk, managers need to get past their own insecurities and develop the skills to give feedback without fear. Here are some tips that can help:

Make feedback a part of your workflow — Rather than waiting until there’s a problem or an annual performance review, bake feedback into your work processes. When giving feedback becomes a natural part of your everyday workflow and culture, it becomes easier to not only do it (practice builds courage), but also allows you to address issues sooner, before they become problematic, and thus uncomfortable and more likely to cause anxiety or fear of conflict.

Be thoughtful but direct — Constructive feedback is not meant to be hurtful or accusatory. It should be empowering, forward-looking and motivating. Be honest and clear to ensure the message is heard, but also encouraging. Instead of saying, “You need to work harder to meet deadlines,” say, “I’ve noticed you’ve missed a couple of important deadlines this week, which delayed the production schedule. Let’s talk about how we can address that to keep you on schedule next week.”

Avoid the “compliment sandwich” — A lot of people use this approach — burying criticism between two compliments — because it eases them into it and leaves the recipient feeling good. But it also means the constructive part often gets lost in the process. The employee comes away thinking, “It must not be a problem, because she told me I was doing a good job.” Compliment sandwiches might make you feel better, but they’re not very effective at resolving the real issue.

Ask open-ended questions Rather than just tell employees what they’ve done “wrong,” ask them about challenges related to the specific project or issue. Ask, “How are things going with the new client?” rather than say, “You need to be more aggressive with getting the new client onboard.” When they have an opening to acknowledge and address obstacles without feeling like they’re being called onto the carpet, it creates an atmosphere in which they can ask for help in addressing it.

Offer support, not solutions — Major infractions or violations of company policy aside, offer troubleshooting assistance rather than telling someone the “right way” to do something. If an employee is having an issue with a co-worker, for example, don’t just dictate how you would handle it, but talk with them to find the right solution for their personality and situation. Or, if it’s a process problem, offer training that can help them improve their performance.

Develop an action plan — When you ask an employee to do something differently without a clear plan for exactly how, it leaves them guessing and their solution may not solve the problem. Instead, work together to frame constructive feedback with SMART goals to ensure expectations are clear, well-understood and measurable. Your plan for improvement must be:

  • Specific: clarify the issue, what is expected and what the options are for addressing it.
  • Measurable: define how you’ll determine if the desired actions or results have been achieved
  • Actionable: with specific corrective action the employee should take
  • Realistic: your expectations must be reasonable and the feedback should be relevant to the performance
  • Time-bound: set a future date for a check-in to review progress toward improvement.

Coach, don’t dictate — Employees want a manager who’s in their corner and wants to help them succeed. Research shows that coaching improves employee performance, and it also helps you to establish better connections with employees and support their development. Approach feedback with empathy by demonstrating that you can relate to their experience and see things from their perspective. By showing them you “get” their challenges, you can create a team environment in which it’s clear that you’ll work together to resolve the issues.

Make it a two-way street — In order to be respected and valued as a coach by your team, you must be willing to accept their feedback as well. Like any relationship, the manager-employee one is about give-and-take. If you’re the only one doling out feedback and never ask for it in return, this sets up a dynamic where it appears you feel you are beyond reproach. Asking for feedback and then accepting and implementing it demonstrates your commitment to self-improvement, continuous learning and growth, which sets a good example for your team.

Giving your employees direct feedback, even when it’s negative, allows them to know where they stand, reduces their anxiety and gives them the confidence they need to continuously improve. Withholding constructive feedback because it makes you feel uncomfortable hurts everyone — your employee, yourself and the company — because you risk losing potentially great talent.

Instead, work on making feedback a natural and frequent part of your everyday interactions. This will help you get over the fear of feedback and lets your employees know they can come to you with any issues that arise. Honesty and transparency creates a healthier, more engaging work environment for everyone.

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