By Gina DeLapa
As a manager, you have the opportunity to inspire your team and bring out their best. One of the most powerful tools you have for this purpose may also be the one for which you received the least formal training: how to give constructive feedback—or how to give feedback, period.
Thankfully, it’s never too late to strengthen this skill. The more you practice, the better and more confident you will become. And you won’t have to wait years for your employees to notice and appreciate your efforts.
The first step is to make peace with the word “feedback.” Notice how often it has a negative tone. I have this theory that if feedback were always pleasant or helpful, we wouldn’t have to soften it with the word “constructive”—as in “Hey, can I give you some constructive feedback?”
Most people will head for the hills.
And while employee engagement also depends in part on positive feedback, it is not the realm where most managers and employees clash. So, let’s focus for now on how to turn the dreaded constructive feedback into an opportunity instead.
It starts with avoiding these 11 common pitfalls:
Pitfall #1: Escalating the conflict. Examples of how this happens: patronizing, digging up the past, or launching into a tirade. In the words of Groucho Marx, “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
Pitfall #2: Tearing down the person. If you want the best chance of being heard and respected, stay focused on the issue—that means no criticizing the employee or generalizing the issue to their entire worth or existence.
It’s the difference between “Why are you so unreliable?” and “Help me understand the no-show to yesterday’s meeting.” Notice how the latter approach invites dialogue and communicates “We’re on the same team” (even if you’re not happy with the no-show at the meeting).
Pitfall #3: Overfocusing on the problem. Instead, move the conversation as quickly as possible to the desired solution. What is the conduct or performance standard you need to see instead? To put it more simply, “Don’t correct, redirect.” You’ll save time and let your employee save face.
Pitfall #4: Making it public. Show respect by taking the feedback behind closed doors. In fact, the more serious or sensitive the feedback, the more it helps to give the other person a say. Example: “Monique, I need to speak with you today for about 15 minutes. Would you prefer to meet right before lunch or right after?” Now you’ve shown Monique some respect and dignity by allowing her to choose her preferred time. It also ensures she’ll be in the best frame of mind.
And if the meeting is held in your office, make sure to silence your phone and remove any other distractions. (I once sat in my pastor’s office and watched the blobby, undulating screensaver on the computer screen behind his head. I don’t have words for how awkward that was.)
Pitfall #5: Ignoring context. Compassionate leaders know that the company holiday party, the team golf outing, or the employee’s birthday are not the time to get into sticky subjects.
Pitfall #6: Implicating the whole group. Example: One person on the team has a performance issue. Rather than issuing a group statement, hoping someone will take the hint, an astute leader takes it up with the individual.
Pitfall #7: Procrastination. The sooner you address someone’s performance, the sooner they can correct it—and the less damage it will do to the rest of the team.
Pitfall #8: Disregarding their own role. Courageous leaders ask questions like “Did I set out clear expectations?” and “Have I done my part to set the employee up for success?”
Pitfall #9: Ambushing the person receiving it. For example, everyone knows a performance review is not the place to bring up a new issue. Yet it happens all too often. The best leaders make sure their feedback is timely. They don’t simply “save up” and share it once a year.
Pitfall #10: Vagueness. Before you sit someone down to address an issue, get clear on the behavior you need to see instead. Make sure the other person is clear on what’s expected. Wherever possible, collaborate on a mutually agreeable outcome.
Pitfall #11: Ignoring consequences. Look for ways to build in accountability. What results are expected and by when? How will you know if the results have been achieved? What happens if they aren’t? (Shout-out to my mother who always lovingly enforced consequences with her four offspring.)
Finally, when you’ve done your part, promise yourself you won’t internalize your employee’s response. If they react poorly at first, let them simply have their reaction. What counts is what they do with the feedback after they’ve had a chance to take it in.
This is yet another way to show your strength and compassion as a manager. When you deliver constructive feedback with respect, you will be regarded not only as a leader, but a strong leader who expects the best from her team and gets it.
Gina DeLapa is the owner of Thriving Cultures LLC, which helps companies transform their culture so employees engage. Sign up for her tips on leadership and company culture by visiting GinaDeLapa.com.