Feedback can be both hard to give and hard to receive. While it’s easy to say that feedback is necessary for us to get better, most people – including me – don’t like to hear what they did that could have been done better. And since most leaders know that people might not want to hear feedback, many leaders are hesitant to offer it.
When the time comes to offer feedback, both people are nervous or anxious. The receiver isn’t sure they want to hear what is being offered and the person delivering the feedback is concerned that their comments will create a negative response. It’s a recipe for strong resistance at a minimum and an escalating conflict in a worst case scenario.
Despite the potential challenges, it is important to offer feedback, and it is possible to do it in a way that minimizes the risk of resistance and conflict. Here are five tips to move you away from resistance and towards engagement.
Get permission. Yes, you are their supervisor. Yes, you have the “right” or “obligation” to let them know how they can improve. And, neither of those points helps the other person receive what you are trying to say. If they give you permission to offer your thoughts rather than you giving unsolicited advice, you improve the odds that they receive what you say positively. You can ask things like:
- Is it okay if I share with you what I see?
- Can I share some information with you?
Different situations will call for different questions, and the idea is to engage the other person in a way that positions what you have to say in the context of offering them something they have said that they want.
Make it a conversation. Make fewer statements and ask more questions. Open-ended questions asked with the intent of learning their perspective can help to ease the way to offering your suggestions when the time comes. The important idea here is that the feedback conversation is a dialogue rather than a monologue. Your goal is to solve a problem together not to tell them what to do.
Make it positive. Notice that I’ve mentioned “feedback” rather than “constructive criticism.” That distinction is intentional. It’s virtually impossible to be constructively critical – from the receiver’s perspective. While it’s often true that people associate feedback with negative comments, feedback, in and of itself, is neither negative nor positive. It is just information. How we deliver it and where we focus our energies makes feedback negative or positive. You can choose to deliver feedback in a positive way. One way to do that is to talk about what will happen the next time the situation under discussion happens rather than to talk about what happened the last time the situation occurred.
Let them propose the solution. Since you are having a conversation about how to handle a situation the next time it occurs, let them tell you what they propose to do. Resist the urge to tell them what they should do. If they offer the solution, they are much less likely to resist it.
Offer your help. To handle a situation differently, they might need more training, more help, new tools, or more time. Their job is to do what they need to do. Your job is to get them the resources, training, tools, and time to do it. Join them in the effort to improve by learning what they think they need and then helping them to get it.
You can’t guarantee that a person receiving feedback will receive it openly and graciously. You can take action to minimize the risk that they don’t and improve the odds that they do. You won’t need each of these five tips in every situation. You can mix-and-match them to the situation, your experience and the person with whom you are interacting to find the right combination of tips and approaches to help your specific situation create engagement and dialogue rather than conflict and resistance.