Leaders sometimes have to give feedback that is hard for people to hear. You are reading this now because you know that is true. Taylor Swift asked in her song, “Why you gotta be so mean?” And truth be told, you may hesitate to give feedback because you don’t want to be seen as mean, or have people miss the feedback because they think you are just being mean. Giving clear feedback with good intentions is the path past your concerns.

          Giving Clear Feedback

  • Check your intentions. I assume you want feedback to be helpful and not hurtful. If you want the feedback to sting or “Set them straight”, check your intention. The point of this article is that feedback can be clear and not leave someone hurt.
  • Make it specific. One of the most important attributes of any feedback is that it be specific. When feedback is vague, it leaves people wondering what you really meant or what they can do with it. Leaving people wondering or leaving them no chance to adjust is frustrating, and yes, it might be mean.
  • Focus on the performance not the performer. It is mean to label someone in a negative way. Remember there is a big difference between someone being late for meetings (about the performance), and someone being lazy (about the performer).
  • Focus on reception. Typically, when we give feedback, we are focused on what we want to say. Why not focus instead on helping people receive and understand the feedback. When you put the focus on them, it is far less likely your comments will be seen as mean. And after all, giving clear feedback is ultimately about them receiving and understanding it, right?
  • Be ready to give it. If you are angry, wait. If you are overly frustrated, wait. If you are in a hurry, wait. (If you are a parent, you have likely messed this up more than once). Feedback given in a rush, in frustration or anger will lead to raised voices, hurt feelings, and perhaps bigger issues than just unclear feedback.
  • Be kind. Why not make this your guide? You can give clear feedback about tough subjects and still be kind.
    What I’m Not Saying
    Maybe you aren’t quite tracking with me, or even though you are agreeing with me in principle, you keep saying “yes, but” in your mind. For all the things I have suggested, there are three things you may be hearing that I am not saying at all.

    Please don’t misunderstand me or construe my advice as including these things. Let me be clear – don’t do these things!

  • Spin.” There is no room for spin when giving clear feedback. In fact, if you try to spin something tough to seem easier to hear, it is no longer clear and specific, and while it may seem easier to give I the moment, isn’t likely to help someone improve.
  • Soft sell. To soft sell something it close to spin, isn’t it? You tell someone there is an issue but try to soften the blow with a “but”. “<insert difficult feedback>, but it isn’t that big a deal.” The soft sell is at best a way to make people feel better, and at worse an invitation to continue with the ineffective performance or results. Without putting the results in proper context, you invite others to keep doing what they were doing. After all, it isn’t that big of a deal, right?
  • Avoid the subject. I get it, because you don’t want to be mean, it is easy to convince yourself to procrastinate talking about it or avoid it altogether. Have you ever seen this work? Will people automatically fix the issue or change their behavior if they don’t know there is a problem? Do you expect them to read your mind? How it is kind (or helpful) to leave people to keep doing something wrong, unsafe, or inappropriate, building a bad habit simply because you don’t want to correct them?

You can do all of these things right, and the feedback might still sting. Remember that people might be surprised and angry or even feel hurt. All of this advice will improve the chances people will accept the feedback and take it to heart, even if their immediate reaction isn’t positive and welcoming.

Remember that you can be clear and still be kind. In fact, if you want to help people succeed in their role, being clear about how they are doing and how that might not lead to success is actually the kindest thing you can share. Because giving clear feedback well isn’t mean at all. It actually helps people succeed.

Kevin Eikenberry, Chief Potential Officer, The Kevin Eikenberry Group


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