Difficult Feedback: How to Listen and Be Heard

No matter how long you have worked as a supervisor, giving negative or difficult feedback is never easy. It can be challenging, stressful, and uncomfortable for you and your employees. While we are often tempted to shy away from the confrontations that can result from negative feedback, avoidance only results in frustration and stress for everyone involved. While there is no one way to provide feedback, approaching any feedback from a place of empathy and respect is the first step in ensuring difficult feedback goes down more easily.

It is important to provide feedback in an environment that feels safe and respectful. Rather than addressing a large issue on the floor of your shared office, difficult feedback be given in private. Use a private conference room or office, and make sure that your offer of a conversation is clear but respectful. One way of going about this is to ask if it is a good time to provide some feedback. Understand your feedback, however important, is interrupting your employee’s workday and asking if they are available starts the conversation from a place of respect. If they are unavailable at that time, plan a time to discuss. This respect for your employees’ time will allow the feedback process to go more smoothly.

Before approaching the employee, establish a plan. Know how you would like the conversation to come to a resolution, what that resolution looks like, and what possible steps can help put the employee back on the right track.  Keep in mind your working relationship and the ultimate results you are looking for. It is important to understand what your expectations of the employee are without establishing a rigid plan. Unfortunately, you cannot predict where the conversation will go or how the employee will react. Be prepared not only with a plan for correction but also a plan if the behavior is related to issues outside of the office. Be equipped with information on your organization’s Employee Assistance Program or other resources that may help resolve an issue that is affecting productivity or behavior.

When meeting with the employee, ideally you have established an atmosphere of mutual respect and empathy. Continue this by allowing the feedback to be a conversation rather than a dictation.  Rather than dictating and having a short conversation, voice your concerns and allow the employee to explain. Actively listen to their answers and approach your response from a place of concern. Guide them to an EAP, behavior modification, training, etc. but ensure that they understand the issue and that there must be a resolution.

When giving negative feedback, it can be tempting to provide a “feedback sandwich” to an employee; sandwiching the negative feedback between compliments.  While direct feedback can be challenging, providing complements around your feedback may lead to confusion for the employee.  It can leave them with a false sense of progress and allow them to focus their attention on the compliments rather than the need for growth. Ultimately, this method won’t change an employee’s behavior and will create decreased trust and increased frustration for both you and your employee.

When approaching difficult feedback, you may be frustrated. Prolonged issues with attendance, performance, or behavior can wear on a supervisor. Because of this, it is essential that you stick to the facts. Focusing on the facts keeps that frustration from bubbling to the surface and allows you to give feedback in a way that is constructive and respectful, eliminating the possibility that your employee feels targeted or bullied. Explain the behavior clearly and concisely and provide feedback on the impact. While this should be a conversation, it is important to be clear on what you see and what results you expect to see. For instance, if an employee is consistently late, a conversation about why this behavior has been perpetual is important. You may learn that the employee’s child is sick, car broke down, etc. and be able to offer potential resources to help. That said, the employee needs to know the behavior cannot persist and what will happen if they continue to be tardy for work. Be clear, be honest, and be respectful. Frame your conversation in a way that lets them know you would like to come up with a solution, but do not lie. Let them know where you stand, what solutions you see, and what will happen if they do not change their current trajectory.

When coming up with a solution or a plan to resolve the issue, bring your employee into the conversation. While it can be tempting to take the simpler route of dictating solutions, employees are more likely to be responsive to feedback when they are included in the solution. An employee that builds deadlines, goals, and helps to outline potential supports are more likely to take ownership over the situation and their own behavior. Allowing them to work with you to set up goals, check-in points, and resolutions will create a more successful implementation of any feedback. After feedback has been given and solutions decided upon, it is important to follow-up, and this can be done through agreed-upon meetings or casual conversations.

Be prepared for your own emotions and reactions. Remember to give room for self-care before and after providing difficult feedback. Emotions are unpredictable and sometimes it can be hard to know how a person will receive negative feedback. Prepare yourself for the possibility of being the target of anger or an employee crying. Allow yourself time to center before beginning the conversation, so you are able to respond in a calm, cool manner that keeps the conversation productive. In the same way, allow your employee to compose themselves. Starting the conversation by asking if they are available for feedback allows them time to compose themselves prior to the meeting. If the employee becomes angry or emotional, allow them the opportunity to compose themselves. This can be anything from giving them a minute to breathe to rescheduling the conversation for another time when they feel more equipped for a difficult conversation.

No matter how long you have been a supervisor, giving negative feedback is not pleasant. Providing a workplace that encourages check-ins and frequent feedback can help to avoid some of these things. If your employee feels comfortable bringing their struggles to you or asking for help from a coworker they are more likely to be successful and avoid the situation of difficult negative feedback altogether. Feedback should be frequent, clear, and respectful. Providing frequent feedback rather than waiting until year-end reviews can be the difference between a successful employee and a failing employee. Allow them room to grow, but don’t avoid guiding your employees or asking if they have questions.

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