How to Give Tough Feedback

There was a time when the “hamburger” was the known method for all things feedback. Give a positive comment, and then some constructive feedback, and close with another positive comment.

The challenge with this approach is the constructive feedback can get lost in the positive surrounding messages. No doubt there is a time and place, lots of it, during which positive feedback and constructive feedback should be given in close approximation. When constructive feedback is not clearly provided or sufficiently separated from praise, an employee can be confused about the core of her message, and the change in behavior that’s being pursued.

The nature of “tough feedback” depends on the overall performance of an employee. The hamburger approach may absolutely be appropriate for a development conversation with an employee who is performing well and looking to grow. “Nice job on your presentation today, you seemed really comfortable up there. One thing to consider for next time is to consider a stronger closing that recaps your main points. That being said, your message was clear and well accepted.” That is not the type of feedback being addressed here.

When you have an employee who is struggling with their performance, embedding the “tough message” inside a positive message makes the tough message seem less important. Therefore, when you need to have these tough conversations, it’s important to go beyond the feedback itself, and discuss the impact and result of the feedback. Be purposeful in your words, practice delivering them if you are nervous. Have a clear distinction on the “what is going well” and the “what isn’t going well” sections of the discussion. Be clear of the consequences. If you have 10 good things to say, and one tough message, be clear if that one tough message is a deal breaker or not. If an employee doesn’t turn around that one behavior, does it matter? They need to know. They have the right to know.

Your employee may easily determine that the outnumbered positive responses outweigh the one tough one. But many times that is not the case. That one thing is the deal breaker.

“You need to meet your deadlines.” This may be one of the most common points of constructive feedback given today.

If meeting deadlines is an ongoing, consistent issue that is holding back the progress of the team, that behavior needs to change, or there may need to be tough decisions to back up those tough discussions.

If nothing else, put yourself in their shoes. If a tough discussion is going to translate into tough decisions, make sure the consequences are clear. It is not fair to your employee to be surprised by a decision, because your feedback, and the consequences of not changing, were not clear. While this may seem obvious, it a common issue. A manager who is frustrated with the performance of an employee and an employee who is confused by what seems like a surprising message that the manager thought they had been sending for months.

So be purposeful in your words. Deliver the tough feedback with a clear understanding of the importance and consequences. Your job will be easier in the end if you are clear up front.

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