Feedback from my first article, How to Become a Better Leader for your Team, directed me to one topic briefly mentioned in the piece – how do we effectively deliver difficult feedback and manage ‘courageous conversations’. Whether you’re running your own business or you’re responsible for a team in a bigger corporation, at some point, you inevitably have to manage these interactions.
In this article, I’ll examine how we navigate these conversations, allowing them to be as effective and positive as possible.
Generally, there are two aspects to having ‘courageous conversations’ in the workplace. One is giving, often anticipated, feedback perhaps to a member of your team who is not performing. The other is delivering bad or controversial news, which can be externally driven by wider influences – this has probably been a factor for everybody recently in light of COVID-19 and will be so for some time to come.
Laying the Foundations
In order to make these tricky transactions/courageous conversations easier, it’s important to initially consider your organizational culture. Ensuring that you operate in a culture where everybody is used to taking and receiving constructive feedback is a good first step.
This makes the need for courageous conversations less frequent. Teams get used to receiving praise for what they do well, which leads to motivated and valued employees. They also become familiar with feedback that assists their development, and this reduces the defensiveness and dismissiveness that can be created when providing developmental feedback. We touched on this a little in my last article.
Encouraging reciprocal channels of communication between you and your team is also valuable. If they feel comfortable communicating and sharing experiences with you, it will make both of you feel more confident about being honest.
Finally, setting clear expectations for your team can also assist you when holding them accountable for achieving their goals. I always use ‘SMART goals’ (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) as a framework when setting targets.
The benefits are twofold. Ensuring expectations are well-defined means individuals are far less likely to underperform – therefore difficult conversations are avoided. However, if they do underperform, you then have very clear objectives and evidence to refer back to, which is a lot easier and more productive than offering ambiguous feedback that they haven’t seen and agreed to beforehand.
Tips on Facilitating Difficult Conversations
1. SMART Feedback
As discussed above, make sure your feedback is specific, realistic, and useful. A good way to prepare is by reviewing the original expectation and comparing it with the end result. This allows you to be objective, honest, and direct.
Prepare a script and rehearse what you’ll say to avoid nervous ramblings and ensure your message is clear! It’s also useful to consider what questions and thoughts they may bring to the conversation when preparing a script
Sometimes, it’s good to include how their performance impacts overall on the organization. This depersonalizes it from being an issue with them and makes them realize how their actions have an influence more widely.
Give them the chance to recognize the developmental or positive performance themselves before you say anything. Use open questions – those starting with what, who, when, where, why and how (5WH) – to elicit this. I often write 5WH in the margin of my notes to remind me. Questions such as:
- How did it go?
- What did you feel comfortable with?
- What was the best part?
- What would you do differently next time?
- How do you think it effected the client?
If they can recognize what they need to do better themselves, it’s so much easier than you having to push it. You can then spend the time discussing solutions for the areas they’ve identified as requiring improvement.
4. If Self-reflection Does Not Work… Drop the Bad News First
This gets it out of the way for them so you can take the conversation forward looking for solutions. If you have a good feedback culture, in the majority of situations, this information shouldn’t be a complete surprise. If they’re waiting for the bad news for most of the conversation, they won’t focus on other important points you may be discussing.
5. Framing Feedback
Make sure everybody understands the use of feedback. Feedback is an opportunity to develop and learn. It’s a chance for improvement and shouldn’t be swamped with negative connotations.
6. Positive Feedback is Just as Important
Ensure you highlight good as well as poor performance. For example, if you don’t tell someone they handled a meeting well, and what they specifically did that was good (remember it needs to be evidenced), then how can they repeat that behavior?
A lot of people are their own worst critics and give themselves a hard time. This leaves you able to give them the good feedback which feels better for both sides! Remember, someone will always have done something well – so make sure you end a session on a positive.
Actively listen during any session. It can be easy to get so focused on what you want to say, especially if you’re under extra pressure due to their performance, that you don’t stop to listen to their reflections.
At the end of the session, always ask if there is anything they want to ask or feel that they disagree with. Otherwise, they can often go away, reflect further, and feel hard done by. This question allows you to reassure them and say anything they want to.
8. Avoid Blame
Understand that everybody will have a unique perspective of the situation. I often use phrases like, “I know from your perspective this may have looked different.” Don’t try to find somebody to blame, this is often redundant after something has already happened. Remember, your goal is to improve outcomes and performance for the future in a way that causes minimal upset and dissatisfaction.
9. Relay Back
A great way of demonstrating you’re listening is to relay back the main points of discussion. This ensures you’re paying attention and understanding what they’re saying. You can do this by using phrases such as:
- My understanding of what you’re saying is…
- In summary, you feel…
- So the overall impact was…..
You’ll often find when you start doing this, others will subconsciously mirror you and do the same! This is a great way of ensuring there is clarity and mutual understanding.
Sometimes, delivering difficult news can be distressing for colleagues. Offering reassurance and adding perspective to the conversation can be extremely valuable. Often, the worst-case scenario is not that bad. It’s good to offer positivity and guidance even when things haven’t gone to plan.
This is particularly important when the feedback isn’t related to a performance or skill related issue but is a situation when you need to deliver bad news – for example the impact of COVID-19 on the company.
This is certainly an area where practice makes perfect. It can feel daunting leading tricky transactions / courageous conversations to begin with, but it does get easier with time and experience. If you have a human resources department or HR colleague, they’ll also be able to offer valuable guidance!