I'm in my first leadership role and finding it uncomfortable to give difficult feedback. I worry that I will be clumsy in trying to fix their flaws and will end up demoralizing people. Any tips?
You're not alone. Giving constructive feedback is a source of stress for many leaders. Rest assured, learning to give feedback meaningfully and constructively is an essential leadership competency that can be developed.
Check your mindset
If you see feedback as a necessary evil and a potential source of conflict, you may want to start by reframing your approach. Instead of conflict, think of feedback as a demonstration of support and investment in your people. If you can hold yourself as a champion of their potential and success you may find it more empowering and less threatening a proposition than if you see yourself as a "flaw fixer."
Be a learner rather than a judger
Before diving into a feedback conversation, prepare by drawing up reflective, curious questions. The "judger" mindset reacts with evaluative thinking: What's wrong with this person? Why can't they get it right? By contrast, a "learner" approach holds the judgments and assumptions.
For example: What is the behaviour I'm observing and is this in character? What might be the reasons and what do I need to ask to learn more? What specific changes do I want to see and what is the best way to clearly convey that? What do I believe about the person's potential and how can I support him or her in achieving this?
Feedback conversations are never meant to be one way or pre-determined. Make sure you invite a two-way discussion and be as prepared to listen as you are to speak.
Be clear and specific
When dealing with performance issues, focus on the specific behaviour and outcomes that need to change. Do not characterize or be vague with your comments. For example: "I've noticed you are not returning calls in a timely manner. I'd like to see you return calls within 24 hours. Let's discuss what needs to happen to ensure success in meeting this time frame." This is more specific and more likely to get response than: "You are being lax, rude and need to shape up!"
Give balanced feedback
Be careful about focusing only on performance gaps, as this can be demoralizing, particularly if the individual has made an effort and demonstrates other positive attributes. Remind yourself what is right and good about this person and /or the project you are discussing and acknowledge this as part of the conversation so that your feedback is balanced.
Consider the person's unique strengths and explore how these can be leveraged to address the performance gap: "I know you to be a creative and resourceful person. Let's see if we can tap into that more fully to take this project to a higher level."
No matter how skillful you are in your conversation, put yourself in the other person's shoes. If you adjust your words, tone and message accordingly, you'll get a receptive response.
With practice, commitment and perhaps a little feedback on your particular style and effectiveness, you will increasingly be more effective and comfortable giving constructive criticism and guidance that fuels success.
Eileen Chadnick is a certified coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.