The Kind Way to Give Critical Feedback
Most of us don’t enjoy giving critical feedback to people on our teams—and many of us flat out dread it. We worry that our words will wound the other person—or be misconstrued—resulting in embarrassment, awkwardness, hostility, or resentment. The more empathetic we are as leaders, the more it pains us to feel like the bearers of bad news, even when we know a piece of constructive criticism is important and necessary. But here’s the thing. When we skip out on offering someone constructive criticism because we don’t want them to resent us, we not only rob them of the opportunity to course correct, we begin to harbor our own resentment, which builds over time and creates disconnection. Not only can that molehill become a mountain standing between you, the issue you left untreated can hinder business performance. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to normalize feedback—both negative and positive—integrating it into the culture so that it feels less like you’re “giving people the business” and more like business as usual.
Create an environment of trust.
No matter how skilled you are at delivering critical feedback, it won’t have the desired effect unless it happens within an environment of trust. And that environment starts with you as a leader, being credible in your words, reliable in your actions, and open to other points of view. Do you tell the truth? When you don’t know, do you say so? Do you deliver on commitments and only commit to things you plan to follow through on? Do you actively seek input from others and show them that you’ve acted on their input? These behaviors demonstrate that you’re not just acting in your own self-interest, which is the fastest way to destroy trust.
Start small. Give feedback early and often.
Trust takes time to develop—and so does a culture of feedback. If you’re “saving” critical feedback for annual reviews or formal one-on-ones, you’re inhibiting progress—and potentially amplifying the anxiety around performance feedback. Instead, normalize same-day feedback—positive and negative. And don’t wait for major screwups. Start small. Identify opportunities for quick corrections, always aiming to give feedback as soon as possible, when the moment is fresh in the receiver’s mind. If the feedback is critical, you’ll want to give it privately, so you and the receiver can speak freely and tackle the challenge together.
Call it coaching instead of feedback.
There’s nothing worse than prefacing feedback with “We need to talk” or “Call me.” It strikes fear in the person’s heart and puts them on the defensive. Instead, give the receiver a clear idea of what you want to talk about and allow them agency in determining when the feedback gets delivered. I like the phrase, “would you be open to some coaching?” For example, you might pop your head into the person’s office, or send them a quick message: “Hey Andy, I have some thoughts about your presentation in this morning’s meeting—would you be open to some coaching?” This shows Andy that you’re not just being critical, you’re genuinely invested in coaching them and helping them develop.
Avoid loaded language—and stick to the facts.
When you deliver critical feedback, it’s important to strip your language of judgment and assumptions and focus only on the behavior you observed. For example, “When you asked the team a question and no one answered immediately, I noticed you tried to supply potential answers instead of giving them time to respond in their own words.” These are the facts of the situation. Lots of nouns and verbs. I did not say, “I noticed you got really nervous and tried to answer for the team to avoid any awkward silence.” You may suspect the person was nervous—but you don’t know that for a fact. They may have found the silence awkward—or they may have been trying to lead the team to a preferred conclusion. Your job is to identify what happened—and give the other person an opportunity to tell you why. That way you’re inviting conversation, rather than shutting it down by telling them how they feel.
Explain the impact of the behavior.
When explaining the impact of a behavior, it’s okay to use descriptive language, because the feelings belong to you. You might say, “When you ask the team a question and don’t allow ample time for people to think and respond, I feel like you’re not really interested in what we have to say, and I’m concerned the team won’t have the opportunity to share important feedback.” This is called the SBI method of giving feedback, which stands for Situation-Behavior-Impact. By explaining the impact of the behavior, you give the person a clear reason to act on your feedback. If you only call out the behavior, they’re left to guess—and they might guess incorrectly.
Give the person time to process and respond to what you’ve told them. Resist the urge to fill the silence or couch your criticism and you’ll be more likely to get a clear explanation. The person might say, “It’s not that I’m not interested in what the team has to say! It’s that when they don’t respond right away, I get nervous that my question was unclear. I’ll work on giving people more time to respond.” Or they might reveal an aspect of the situation you weren’t aware of. “I felt some hostility from the group when I asked the question. No one was looking at me, and it made me wonder if they weren’t interested in what I had to say.” Giving the other person a quiet moment to process allows you both to get clarity on the situation, so you can move forward.
The most important thing to remember about feedback is that it’s not just about the person receiving it. If their actions or behavior have no discernible impact on the team, you shouldn’t be giving them feedback in the first place. So, make sure to approach feedback in a spirit of collaboration. State the facts, explain the impact, and listen to their response. If they’re not sure how to address the issue, ask if they’re open to brainstorming ideas together.
Say “thank you.”
Once you have an action plan in place, it’s a good idea to thank the person for receiving your feedback. A simple and sincere, “Hey, thank you.” tells the person you value their time, energy, and openness, and lets you leave the conversation on a positive note of connection.
I know it’s not easy to give critical feedback. But the more we normalize it, the easier it gets—and the faster we can improve our team and company performance. What was the best critical feedback you’ve ever received? What did the person say—or not say—that really resonated with you?
August 30, 2022