6 Steps to Offering Tough Feedback, and Why It's a Crucial Skill for Every Leader
Set an example for communication and progress you want to see in your organization..
It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, and I am listening to my coaching client discuss a repeating altercation she has experienced with her peer. Let’s call this individual Dan. It’s been another week of Dan critiquing her projects and team members during the staff meeting. She doesn’t think that Dan acts this way intentionally, not necessarily, but he continues to act this way unabated, dropping passive aggressive comments and laughing down her suggestions week after week after week. Every time she pursues a conversation with him to discuss his behavior, he responds with shock at the suggestion that his manner is nothing other than stellar, essentially gaslighting her.
During our meeting, I can read the anger and frustration on her face. Her arms fly in aggressive, frantic motion. She feels victimized by her situation, as if there is no other option but to quit. But she actually doesn't want to do that. She is a fulfilled, well-respected senior executive at a consumer electronics brand. She grew up in the industry, starting as a program manager and moving up, through leading product management and retail to running the entire operations of her organization. She loves her job. She is intelligent, vibrant and humble. She knows her stuff inside and out. And yet, she is quickly impacted by interrogations and criticisms by her peers. When I challenge her on how she can better share crucial feedback with Dan, there is a long silence. I can read the inner monologue on her face: He will never change... He will gaslight me... What if I get emotional in the conversation? Or worse, what if his interrogations get worse?
She is not alone with this experience. I observe this reaction with almost every other coaching client. Though the fear of having a difficult conversation can be daunting, your feedback can have a significant positive impact on the receiver's results, performance and relationships.
Here is a practical guide on the art of offering feedback and building this critical leadership muscle sustainably. These six steps can help you in offering feedback to even the most resistant members of your team:
1. Check yourself first, get clear on your why
Start by asking yourself what thoughts and emotions are coming up for you to share this feedback with this individual. What fears and limiting beliefs could potentially be showing up, and why? You want to be aware of your personal biases, so journaling or scribbling down your thoughts is a great way to uncover what is going on in your head. Remember, no one can make you feel any pain through words unless you identify with it, and the reason for identification may originate from unhealed inner wounds you may need to face head-on.
2. Be direct, specific and caring
Showing up with compassion and genuine care will make all the difference for your feedback to be heard. You can provide caring and compassionate feedback and still drive accountability without easing the situation with harmony.
Leaders who value harmony are especially the ones who struggle with it. Typical behaviors for an attempt to ease could show up as
Apologizing for sharing your feedback to comfort the recipient
Explaining yourself in wordy length to justify your point
Train yourself in sitting in discomfort. The rewards will be growing confidence and respect in return, as well as healthy boundaries in personal relationships.
3. Listen actively, be present
Ask intentional, open-ended questions to unpack the feedback. Potential questions can include, what was your intention during today's team meeting with [fill in the blank], or how do you think your reaction impacted the purpose of the meeting?
4. Lead with impact
Share specific examples of the impact and consequences the recipient's behavior and actions have had on you, your team and/or on the project.
5. Offer your support
Consider how you can be of service to the person in order for them to improve. Also be open to the fact that you as well are willing to change or adapt in order to help the person get to where they need to go. Offering your support shows commitment to future progress and also expresses that you are taking ownership of your contribution to the situation.
6. Inquire agreement
It is critical to leave the conversation with a mutual agreement to create a level of accountability. A potential agreement could be:
A commitment to return to the conversation after further reflection
An agreement to specific actions, behaviors and steps to work on improving the situation
Your feedback has the potential to change someone's life
Imagine you are perhaps the first person in your peer's career who dares to speak up, reflect on his behavior and provide crucial feedback. You can help him expand his awareness and clarify the root cause of frustrating reactions he may have endured his entire life.
Your feedback has the potential to help improve and grow your peer's leadership and interpersonal skills. Shying away from sharing crucial feedback can be a selfish act holding back the growth potential of the recipient.
The ability to provide feedback is an essential leadership skill and a crucial part of communication. Leaders who are skilled in giving feedback in a specific, caring and confident manner build more vulnerable relationships and become highly respected over time.
Be proactive. Be direct. Be a leader, and set an example for communication and progress you want to see in your organization.
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