Giving feedback. It’s hard.

Table of Contents

We all want to make people happy. We want to tell people what they want to hear. We tell them they did well. It makes them feel better. It makes us feel better. We tell ourselves that now is not the right time to help them with constructive feedback. We delay that conversation for a few days. It only becomes harder. We delay the conversation by a month. Then a year. You’ve likely seen this at play.

Two key questions come up. Why do we delay these conversations? More importantly, how do we move toward having these conversations to help people be better?

The above applies to our personal lives as much as it does to our work lives. When speaking about work, the guidance is intended for performance improvement conversations. Someone’s deliverables are late, their presentations are not structured, they misinterpret data, or anywhere else performance is not meeting expectations.

I was 6 or 7 when I had my first hard conversation. I was on the receiving end of feedback. I lost a chess game. My dad wanted me to understand what I did wrong. More importantly, he wanted me to learn from my mistakes so that I wouldn’t make them again. It was hard to be on the receiving end. I am sure that it was hard to be on his end as well. Suddenly, it became a habit and part of my chess routine. A decade later, I was Canada’s youngest ever chess Grandmaster. Those hard conversations, also known as coaching, were a key contributor to getting me there. Thank you Dad.

To answer the first question, we delay these conversations because they are uncomfortable. We don’t like to be uncomfortable. Comfort does not lead to growth. If we want to grow ourselves and our team members, we should embrace discomfort.

Answering the second question is more difficult. The most important thing is to have these conversations. Get started. If you are looking for a book, Radical Candor by Kim Scott is a good one.

Here are some actionable steps to get you started with that conversation. Always do this in a one-on-one setting.

1. Ask the person how they are feeling about the topic you want to address 

Some people are very self-aware. Great athletes are often the most critical of themselves. You didn’t need to tell Tim Duncan he made a mistake - he was already busy trying to fix it. Some people are not self-aware and point the finger at everybody but themselves. That is more difficult to address. You still need to understand what their assessment is. Is it that they are missing a nuance or the whole picture?

2. Understand their assessment of the topic and acknowledge it

Everybody wants to be heard. You should make sure to understand what the other person thinks about the situation. You should truly understand it because you might be the one missing the nuance. They may have missed that important meeting or have been late to a lot of calls because their partner is sick. They could be dealing with a medical issue themselves. If that’s the case, the conversation is a very different one. They may already be looking to address the issue, which requires a different approach from the below.

3. Share your assessment on the topic

Tell them what you think. If their presentation completely missed the mark, let them know and tell them why. Be clear and factual. Talk about impact. Speak to the specific example(s). Tell them you think they can do better and that you want to help them.

You wanting to help is a key part. You are not the enemy. You are the one who makes them uncomfortable and then elevates them.

4. Ask them how they feel about your feedback

Ask for their assessment. You will understand if they are receptive or combative. More people than you think will be receptive and appreciative of the feedback. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is also rare. The more senior you become at a job, the more rare it is. The best people you will ever work with will ask you for more feedback. They will also truly appreciate it and grow. Giving feedback is an investment in somebody - it is also time and energy consuming.

5. Share actionable steps to improve

Feedback is great. Making it actionable is much better. If they messed up the presentation by not having a structure, ask them what a better structure would have been. Walk them through how to think about a presentation structure. Give them a template. Teach them how to fish.

6. Make it a habit

Giving feedback once is not enough. Give ongoing feedback as you see your team members do things well, improve, or struggle. You are a personal trainer. Help your people reach their potential.

Giving and receiving feedback can be uncomfortable. It’s a new muscle. Giving and receiving feedback are entirely different muscles. Try to work them both out. Don’t get defensive when receiving feedback. Ask for more context if you don’t quite understand the feedback.

Seeing people becoming better is very gratifying. The best moments of my career involved seeing people do things they never thought they could. People don’t realize their potential unless others decide to help them.

Ideally, you document these conversations somewhere to create accountability and measure progress. With an HRIS like Collage, you can often do so in a Performance Management tool. Performance reviews on a recurring cadence are one way to do it. Ideally, you are doing so more often with check-ins.

Most people want to do their best work. Help them get there. If you are a people manager, that’s a key part of your job.

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