4 Tools for Giving Tough Feedback

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “Oreo” method of feedback. You (inauthentically) butter someone up by telling them how great they are, then you tell them how they suck, then you (inauthentically) tell them how great they are.

Despite this technique’s popularity, it actually isn’t all that effective. Maybe the “Oreo” has stuck around for so long because it feels easier.

Giving critical feedback can be tough. As compassionate managers, team leaders, and co-workers, we might fear hurting the other person’s feelings, being misunderstood, or even triggering retaliation. If you are on the receiving end, you might leave the conversation feeling incompetent, ashamed, or attacked.

But giving and receiving feedback—whether from coworkers, managers, customers, or outside partners—is essential. Given well, it helps individuals to grow, products to develop, teams to innovate, and organizations to become more effective.

If that weren’t enough, according to a recent Gallup poll, Millennial workers want feedback. So, how can we give feedback so it has the best chance of getting through another person’s defenses and be heard the way we intended? Focus on the following 4 tools:

1. Offer your observations, not “the facts.”

Our perception of someone sometimes doesn’t line up with their perceptions of themselves. So, if you tell someone that they’re not meeting your expectations, and they think they’re doing a fabulous job… that might create confusion, unnecessary tension, or even animosity.

When addressing a concern about an employee or peer’s behavior or performance, frame your statements as observations, not absolutes. Try beginning with phrases like, “I’ve observed,” or “A team member has said,” (without naming names, of course). This lets the receiver understand from the very beginning that these are perceptions, not objective truths.

2. Describe the impact of the behavior you want changed.

The past is past, so why not look forward to how everyone can do better in the future?

As employees, managers, and human beings, we appreciate when someone explains the “why.” Say your team member Danika missed an important deadline to submit a proposal to convert a new client. And say that potential client hired another team. The issue isn’t so much the missed deadline. It’s the lost opportunity. It’s the other team members feeling let down. It’s the disappointment felt by all of missing a chance for a team-wide triumph.

So, instead of berating Danika about the deadline, try describing how submitting reports in a timely fashion helps not only convert clients, but also contributes to the overall success of the team in the long run. And when she succeeds, everyone on the team shares in that success.

3. Focus on solving problems, not judging people.

The best way to trigger someone else’s defensiveness and derail a conversation from the start is to project blame or judgment. Skip it. Instead, get in the habit of offering future-oriented feedback.

Remember Danika? Maybe she needs some help managing her time. Maybe she’s feeling overwhelmed, either at work, or at home. Does she need more check-ins? Perhaps an accountability buddy on the team? Maybe she’d appreciate your help in outlining a specific plan of action with smaller steps that will make her projects seem less daunting. Figure out what the problem is so that you and she can work together to solve it for the future.

4. Appreciate the other’s strengths and their willingness to hear you.

At the end of the conversation, let the other person know that you appreciate their strengths, and that they were willing to listen to your concerns. Maybe you found out that Danika is juggling several difficult projects at once, which is why she missed that deadline. You can let her know that you appreciate her efforts trying to keep on top of it all, even if you didn’t know just how much work she’s tackling.

Remember that any time you give or receive feedback, you have an opportunity to work on building long-term relationships that help everyone learn, grow, and be better humans. If you focus on the future, you’re already off to a great start.

Let us know how your conversations go, and be in touch if you want to find out more about our work helping organizations develop cultures of healthy feedback.