How to Give Tough Feedback
You have an employee who’s underperforming. You know you have to give the employee a good talking-to, setting forth what’s going wrong and what needs to change. But you put the meeting off for weeks or even months.
When you finally call the employee in, you turn mealy-mouthed and your plan to be direct turns to mush. You can’t look the employee in the eye and give tough feedback.
If this is an experience you’ve had, you’re not alone. We’re hardwired to avoid pain and to avoid causing others pain, so it’s natural to delay this kind of tough conversation, even when you know that the problems resulting from the poor performance will continue.
Here’s how to handle these delicate situations.
Before you meet with the employee, prepare. Identify specific examples of what the employee is doing that’s inappropriate or has caused problems for the team or the project.
Then, when you meet, you can calmly, objectively, and concisely describe what you see as the problem or behavior that needs to be addressed. Where you can quantify the problem, all the better. “You missed the deadline by a full week” is much better than “You were late.”
It’s usually a good idea to solicit the employee’s perspective, so you can gauge if your explanation is hitting home. After all, there may be pertinent information that you were unaware of. And sometimes, the root of the problem is other than what you thought.
It can also be valuable to ask the employee what might have been done differently to avoid the problem or deal with the situation. Drawing from your own perspective and that of the employee, you can then explain what you’d like to see transpire from this point on and how you’ll assess that it’s happening. If possible, provide a specific timeline so that you’re both clear when you’ll follow up to gauge improvements or progress.
When talking with the employee, take care to focus on the problem, not the person. The problem is deadlines being missed, or serious bugs not found, or grammar-challenged reports, not that the person is lazy, careless, or incompetent.
Withholding or sugarcoating critical feedback is ultimately a disservice—to the individual, the team, and the work involved. Giving timely, constructive feedback is one of the most important roles of any manager.