Several executives, when asked for the leadership skills that were most important and difficult to master mentioned the ability to give tough feedback and constructive criticism more than a few times. The phrase tough feedback is often misinterpreted to mean always giving bad news or telling someone they’ve performed poorly. The definition of tough is “unyielding, firm, durable.” So it’s better to think of tough feedback in that context—someone may feel uncomfortable with what is being said simply because it’s not consistent with how they view themselves.
But “tough” also means the discomfort we might feel when giving negative feedback, and also the challenge of giving the feedback in a way that motivates instead of making the other person feel defensive. Sometimes, managers make common mistakes when attempting to give tough feedback. You might be angry at a member of your staff and use the feedback conversation to blow off steam, instead of coach them. You might also delay giving necessary feedback because we foresee that the employee will become argumentative and refuse to accept responsibility. You might also try surrounding negative feedback with positive feedback, like a bitter pill in a spoonful of honey. This method is also misguided, because you don’t want the negative feedback to slip by unnoticed in the complements.
Instead, it’s essential to create conditions in which the receiver can take in feedback, reflect on it, and learn from it. Managers have to be comfortable with giving lots of tough feedback. It’s a challenge to give tough feedback to anyone, but it’s particularly difficult when it’s to an under-performing employee, or someone who constantly tries your patience. Here are some tips to help you give tough feedback that will get through to your staff and – more importantly – help them grow.
- Show the results of actions: In order not to hurt anyone’s feelings, show whoever you’re giving tough feedback the specific results of their actions. One example is a boss telling an employee that because they failed to run a write-up by him before forwarding to a client, they ended up sending below-par work, making the client unhappy. Here, there’s no need for raised voices or insults, merely showing the outcome of someone’s actions is enough to call any reasonable employee to order. Mention places where the employee is doing well and then tell him/her where they need to improve. This method gets the message across, while keeping things respectful.
- Connect tough feedback to their progress: When you tie tough feedback to goals that need to be achieved, it motivates instead of demoralizing. This shows how important it is to establish clear goals with employees and discuss their progress on a regular basis. A conversation about goal progress provides the opportunity for your clients to share feedback that will motivate rather than demoralize an employee. This approach to providing feedback can help keep your team productive and focused on what’s important.
- Be specific: Feedback of any kind is only useful when it is about a specific aspect of the subject’s performance. Giving critique like “your newsletters aren’t frequent enough” is too vague and will hardly result in any visible changes on the part of the person receiving the critique. Say something like “in the last two months, you compiled six newsletters, instead of the required fourteen and you’ve given no explanation for this.” When you give specifics such as these, it lends credibility to the criticism.