A Proactive Approach to Tough Feedback

One of the hardest things a manager has to do is sit down
with an employee and discuss a serious behavior or performance issue,
especially when if it’s going to be an unpleasant surprise to the employee.

Tough feedback is just that . . . tough! And while we may not ever get to a
point where we look forward to sharing difficult information, there are ways to
make these conversations less difficult.

One of the biggest reasons tough feedback is so tough is that we realize what
we are about to share will shock, disappoint, or even anger the employee.
However, usually it’s not necessarily the information that causes the shock,
disappointment or anger, it’s the fact that the employee never saw it coming.
The difficult news seems to come out of the blue and completely contradict the employee’s
perception of the circumstances.

A common myth of management is that
people can’t handle bad news. WRONG! People can’t handle news that contradicts their frame of reference.
If you want to make tough feedback less tough, focus on how to eliminate the
shock and disbelief factor. Here’s how:

1. Clearly define
and set the employee’s and your expectations up-front.

People don’t go from star performers to poor performers
overnight and they definitely shouldn’t become aware of this fact for the first
time at their annual review. Expectations should be clear and agreed upon
up-front. Employees should know exactly what you expect from them, what they
can expect from you, and what needs to be done to make improvements.

2. Give feedback throughout the year.

Don’t just stockpile your feedback for the formal review. Again, no one likes
surprises, especially bad ones, so don’t keep people in the dark. If an
employee has been reminded about a specific behavior issue eight times
throughout the year and has failed to make an improvement, the feedback and
lower rating will be less shocking (and less difficult to deliver) during the
annual review.

Focus on the task and the expectations around the task – not the person.

Give clear examples of actions that don’t meet your
expectations. The feedback should focus on the task, behaviors and expectations,
with specific examples.

Here’s two examples:

– Too personal and general: “You are too controlling and
need to calm down.”

– Specific, behavioral, and relevant to the job: “In today’s meeting, when you
interrupted Dan, Jane and John to share your ideas, you made it difficult to
gather full team input. Please let others complete their thoughts before you
share yours.”

4. Make a plan with dates to discuss and
update expectations – and document it.

Tough issues should be documented
and managed throughout the year. Keep checking in with the employee to re-state
and clarify both your expectations and his or hers. Keep an accurate
understanding at all times about how you both feel the person is doing relative
to the performance issues. This understanding can only happen if you schedule
planned meetings throughout the year to review and discuss.

Whether spoken or unspoken, expectations have a powerful impact on our
thoughts, feelings, and actions. They play a key role in driving our attitudes.
Research shows that employees who have clearly defined, well communicated
expectations find more satisfaction and success in their work than people whose
expectations remain vague and unspoken.

Believe it or not, the more you give feedback about uncomfortable issues, the
less uncomfortable the sessions become. The sessions only become tough if
you’ve been avoiding the issue.

Take a proactive, not a reactive, approach and you will
help strengthen your relationships with your employees and head off many of
those dreaded “sweaty palmed, sick stomach” discussions.

Feedback sessions are tough when an employee is caught off
guard. Taking a proactive approach to tough feedback eliminates the shock and