When it’s time to give constructive feedback, managers often get wrapped up in how it comes across rather than focusing on changing someone’s behavior. And that approach makes sense — as humans, we’re naturally empathetic, and we understand how feedback can be uncomfortable. But the reluctance to provide feedback can get in the way of an employee’s growth.
It’s OK to worry about how people will take your feedback; you just can’t let it change your approach. “It’s hard for people to give feedback,” says HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann. “We take it so personally. You have to take that seriously — and when you take it seriously, you do better.”
Here’s how to give direct feedback without being harsh.
Too often managers try to be empathetic when giving feedback; they talk about how much they understand the person’s actions, and they fail to deliver the information that would be helpful, Ruettimann says. “When you’re worried about feelings you’re not delivering your message, and that means you’re working against yourself and the development of the employee.”
To leave feelings out of feedback, get specific about the problem behaviors you want to highlight and the steps the employee needs to take in order to change, Ruettimann says. “It’s really important to differentiate between the person and the behavior when you’re delivering feedback. Make sure the words are directed toward the behavior.” This means focusing on an employee’s chronic lateness and what that does to the team, not what kind of a person the employee is.
Ruettimann says she tells people to not give feedback unless they want to change someone’s life — it’s that serious. And if you take feedback that seriously, it’s common to get nervous when it’s time to talk to an employee about their behavior. You might start rambling or getting off-topic in an effort to make it easier, but this only confuses your message.
Practice is crucial to getting feedback right, Ruettimann says. Take some time to jot down notes about what you want to talk about, or write a script to help you stay on topic. Feedback works best when it’s clear, concise and direct, so don’t load your notes with multiple bullet points or different behaviors you want to change.
Ruettimann says she was once tasked with informing a colleague about a body odor problem. She says she kept in mind that this kind of feedback could change the employee’s life in an embarrassing or shameful way, so she tried a direct but nonjudgmental approach. “I tried to make a quick, human-to-human connection and talked about how while no one was talking about this employee, there seemed to be a smell coming from the workstation, and I wanted to let them know,” she says. “Being direct and concise helped; it wasn’t emotional.”
Giving feedback can feel like you’re making a statement about a person’s inherent worth or dignity, when all you’re trying to do is change results. Keep things moving forward by taking a straightforward approach, Ruettimann says: “Whatever’s happening, let’s fix it.” And in some cases, she says, simply listening to what an employee is dealing with can make it clear to them what needs to change to get better results.
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