Corinth spent the afternoon staring at her ever growing inbox, perplexing on how she was going to tackle the snowballing problem with Frances. Each time she tried to address the issue, she found herself tiptoeing around and not getting the point across. Even when she rehearsed it in her mind–as she was doing now–when it came time to deliver, somehow it came out flat. “I really need to get better at giving feedback,” she thought to herself.
One of the most difficult challenges you’ll face as a manager is giving effective feedback. Even if you’re not a manager, you’re bound to be in a situation where feedback is awkward. Delivered the wrong way, well-intended feedback can be counter-productive–that’s why we’re so scared to give it! Given the right way, however, it can lead to both trust and career growth for you and your direct reports.
I’ve spent the past couple years challenging myself to step out of my comfort zone when it comes to feedback. I can’t lie though; after all this time it’s still hard to do. What this practice gave me, however, are great examples for myself of when uncomfortable feedback lead to really great results. While there are no shortcuts to getting comfortable giving tough feedback, there are a few lessons I’v learned that should help. Let’s jump in.
Step 1: Ask Yourself: “What’s the purpose of this feedback?”
Lucky for Corinth, she didn’t run into Frances for the rest of the day. “I’ll handle it tomorrow morning,” she said to herself as she headed home on the train, but deep down she just wanted to drop the whole issue. “What if I really did just leave it alone?” She entertained the thought for a moment but knew that it wasn’t really an option. The fact was that she really did value Frances and wanted to see him improve. He was great overall, but she knew this issue would eventually hold him back if he didn’t improve soon. He needed to hear it, and it was the right thing to do.
The first step to getting more comfortable with giving feedback is to evaluate your intentions. Are you doing it because you want to see the person improve? It might not be, it might be because you just have to address an issue for someone else’s sake. Here’s the trouble with that. Feedback given without the right intent can lead to the unhealthy conflict you’re so afraid of. It’s so important for you to stop and re-evaluate what you’re trying to achieve. If it’s not primarily to help the person, then spend some time changing your thinking so that it is.
As an aside, if you’re working with someone, even if you don’t particularly like them, you should want them to improve. Why? Because they impact the quality of the work environment around you. It’s a sign of your own seniority that you look to make others better, regardless of your personal feelings. Of course, you don’t have to, but it’s a great way to stand out and show your maturity. Typically, I’ve seen that maturity help grow people more quickly in their careers.
Step 2: Building Trust through Words and Actions
After binging on episodes of The Office for a couple hours that evening to get her mind off the issue, Corinth lay awake in her bed, staring aimlessly at the dim glow of the baby monitor light next to her bed. Her husband had fallen asleep long ago, but she was still thinking about the problem with Frances. Did Frances know that she simply wanted him to get better? In that moment of reflection, she realized she had never really told him directly that she had high hopes for him. Maybe I’ll lead with that tomorrow, she determined, finally feeling the effect of her exhaustion taking over.
I can say from experience that giving feedback when there’s no trust is really hard to do. It usually isn’t very effective either. So, after having the right intentions, the next step is to make sure you’ve established a trusting relationship with the person you’re speaking with.
Trust here isn’t so complicated. It’s simply making sure your positive intentions are believed by the person you’re giving feedback to. If they believe that you’re sincere, and that the advice you’re giving is valuable to them, then they’ll be much more receptive to it. You can accomplish this by simply telling them what you’re hoping they’ll gain from implementing the feedback. As a bonus, if you have examples of where you’ve had their back, or promoted their growth, you can remind them so they truly believe you always have their best interests in mind.
Step 3: Repeat and Reflect Until Something Clicks
Corinth liked to imagine herself as a handyman sometimes. Over the years she collected experiences as a manager and put them into her toolbox. Some of those tools weren’t the best quality yet, but others were honed and tuned and worked well to easily fix problems she’d encountered before. She remembered all those years back, that encounter with Frances and how it let her put a shiny new gadget into her toolbox. Over the years, she improved on it by gaining more positive experiences. As she strolled over to her one-on-one with Juan, she reached in and grabbed the perfect tool to handle the situation, whispering quietly to herself, “you got this.”
If you’re not comfortable yet giving feedback, you never will be unless you keep doing it. A basic of our psychology is that we need multiple positive experiences in order to overcome a fear. Each time you have a positive result from giving feedback, it’ll help you realize that at the end of the day, doing it is worth any discomfort you feel. Sometimes that positive experience takes time though. In a case I personally experienced, it was only after a year that the person came back and thanked me for the feedback. It took them that long to realize how important it was for their career development.
I’ve realized over the years that some skills simply take time to develop. You can read up on all the latest techniques, but getting good still requires doing it over and over again. Feedback is one of these things, there’s no short-cut to being comfortable with it.
Taking it Home
The right intentions, building trust, and practice are the three steps to getting better at giving hard feedback. I asked a group of managers how they felt about giving difficult feedback. All of them said it was hard, and just about the hardest thing they do as managers. I also asked a group of engineers what they valued most in a boss. They answered saying it was effective and honest feedback that would help them to improve.
Before you go, look to identify more skills that really need practice to get good at. These may be things you’ve read a lot about but still don’t feel so comfortable doing. If you’re intentional about practicing them more, chances are you’ll eventually gain a level of comfort with them. You may also find yourself outpacing those around you in your growth as a manager and professional.
Bonus: if you’re ever on the receiving side of having to take critical feedback, checkout a previous post called Don’t Play the Victim: Using Criticism to Jump Start Your Career. It’s full of tips on how to take feedback in a positive way to grow in your career.
Cover Image Credit: Dooder