How to Provide Honest Feedback In Tough Situations

Matt Havens Leadership Speaker

Greetings everyone! The new year is finally upon us! As I wrote about last year, we’re about to embark on (or maybe you’re already dead-smack in the middle of) performance review time! This time of year often coincides with a significant increase in general malaise. In fact, studies have shown workplace illness rises approximately 45% in January and February each year, as well as a 33% increase in restaurant traffic during the 4-7pm hour (i.e. Happy Hour). Hey, we all deal with stress differently, right?*

One of the inherent parts of the performance review process is a conversation with your team members about their performance. Sometimes it’s all happy and unicorns!

Example of Happy Unicorn Conversation

“Lauren, great year! You really killed it. We’re going to give you the max bonus we’re allowed. You deserve it. In fact I would give you even more, but I have to stick to some kind of a budget, right?”

Everyone likes those. They’re easy, and you make other people happy. It feels GOOD! It feels better than bathing in a bathtub of Christmas cookies. Well, at least I imagine that would feel nice. Not that I’ve tried it two or three times or anything.

Anyway, the big problem is that not all performance reviews go this way. In fact, some of them aren’t easy at all. Performance reviews occasionally require a tough conversation, one where not everyone is excited about the information they must share or that will be shared with them.

It got me thinking – and not just specific to performance review conversations – but how do we go about providing feedback in tough situations? As a leader, how can you balance the need to share tough information while also including a message that will promote growth in the person and also still have a relationship focused on your goals? Since we face these types of conversations frequently, the specifics of each conversation will differ based on the situation. However, for illustration purposes, let’s take an example which could theoretically happen at any point in the year:

A business decision has been made. It’s out of your control. It’s now your responsibility to share the information with an impacted employee.

Maybe you need to ask an employee to change their schedule or take on a new responsibility they aren’t excited about. Maybe you pushed your boss for a higher bonus for an employee but didn’t succeed. Whatever the situation, it makes sense to do the following each time:

  • Be upfront. Don’t fall into the tendency to “sugar coat” the situation, or to ask their opinion only to tell them shortly afterwards that a decision has already been made and their opinion didn’t really matter. Just start by being up front and you’ll eliminate a lot of awkwardness as they spend the first 5-10 minutes of your conversation trying to figure out why you’re meeting and what you’re here to discuss.
    • “Hey, we’re meeting today because a decision has been made which impacts you. It’s been decided we need you to work a different shift and what I’d like to talk about with you today is how we can help make this transition as painless and productive as possible.”
  • Have compassion. When delivering a tough message, it’s almost natural to want to compartmentalize the decision. I’ve seen people (myself included to be fair) attempt to detach from it emotionally and treat this human situation the way we might treat a more impersonal decision regardless supplies or logistics. And while this may help in the moment, it doesn’t solve the issue. You either end up coming across callous and insensitive, or you regret how it makes you feel afterwards. One of the things I’ve learned is to shift my focus from concentrating on the problem to helping the person I’m talking to look towards a solution. Even better yet, if I can look inward and see what sacrifices I can make to help them along in the process, we’ll both end up in a better situation emotionally and ready to take on the challenge.

Delivering a difficult message won’t always be easy – that is, after all, why they’re called difficult situations – but being upfront and having compassion will at least put you on the right path each time. Not only will your employees thank you (and they will, even if they don’t do it out loud), it might help you get through the decision with minimal impact to your production or human capital on the team.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bathtub full of Christmas cookies that are calling my name. Until next time!

* These stats are completely false and made up. But I bet you thought for a second at least…..”Yeah, I can see that. I’ve always been fond of January Happy Hours, and now I know why.” I actually wonder how many people will read this footnote and how many will just see those stats and go tell a co-worker J Hit me up on Twitter if you read this. Let’s exchange some other fake stats. Seems to be the trend these days. @HavensSpeaking #fakestats

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