How to Give Tough Feedback

Giving feedback is an important part of any leader’s job. It’s also one of the most difficult things for a leader to bring themselves to do, especially when the feedback is critical.

There are different reasons for this discomfort. Many leaders worry about whether someone’s going to be angry, or somebody’s going to cry. Or they worry about not being liked or not being popular with their team. And sometimes, they just don’t know what to say.

This often leads to leader trying to mix in tough feedback with positive feedback, like a sandwich. We’ve all seen this. We’ve all had people say, you did a great job, but you could have done this better, but you’re doing a great job still. Almost like they can’t make up their mind.

The problem with this approach is simply, it doesn’t work. Some people will hear the sandwich and focus on the positive; especially if they have a strong ego. They will tune out the negative. In other words, they won’t hear the feedback that you want them to hear.

Others will pick out the middle of that sandwich and take the negative too seriously. And then many will just plain be confused with mixed messages that you’re sending out. None of these outcomes will lead to better performance, which is what you want.

Leaders who truly make an impact with their team follow a three-step approach to giving tough feedback.

  1. They describe the behavior that they want to correct. The key word here is describe. It’s not a judgmental statement. For example, they won’t say ‘you were really careless in submitting that proposal’. Rather they describe the behavior as it appeared. Something like, ‘I noticed that you did not review their proposal before submitting it’.
  2. They talk about the impact of the behavior. An impactful leader will say something like ‘the proposal contained errors which lowered our chances of getting approval’. Now, if this is an ongoing issue, they might also talk about the impact of this issue on their relationship ‘this is creating a trust issue between us. This is creating friction’. It’s important for the person getting the feedback to understand the implications not only on the work itself, but on the relationship that they have with their leader.
  3. They tell the employee what they would like them to do going forward. This should be direct and specific. In the above example, it could be something like asking them to review the proposal before submitting. Another way to approach this is to adopt a coaching approach and ask them what they can do differently to avoid these mistakes in the future. But be careful here. If you have one specific thing in mind that you want them to do, don’t ask them what they would do. You will be putting them in a situation where they have to guess what it is that you want. And it’s not really a fair thing to do to anybody.

Being direct with your feedback and focusing clearly on a behavior you want them to work on, is a far more effective way of driving results than beating around the bush and trying to spare their feelings. Incorporate that into your feedback approach and you will see much better results!