02/15/2012 08:59 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012

Pushing Past the Pain of Feedback

This constantly happens to me. I am talking with one of my coaching clients about an employee of theirs whose performance is not up to par. I point out to the manager that he or she will need to give this person feedback if the performance is going to improve. That's when I get the look. Call it heartburn, distaste or dread. Are you feeling it right now? No one likes to give someone feedback. Yet, how can someone change their behavior if they don't know what they're currently doing isn't meeting expectations?

The good news is that there is a tried and tested method for giving someone feedback that doesn't make you the bad guy. In fact, the odds are in your favor that the employee will see you in a positive light -- supportive, looking out for their best interests, etc. So let's get started with the step-by-step.

Know Thyself. Particularly when it comes to giving feedback, all of us have some form of a Jekyll and Hyde battle in our heads. For some, the tension is between "I want to be direct with her" and "if I really tell her how big the gap is between her performance and my high standards, I will devastate her." For others, it's "I want to get to the point so he can understand how quickly he needs to improve" and "I don't want him to be de-motivated by what I need to tell him." Or, "we have very high standards around here and we know who is not hitting the mark -- it's pretty obvious" and "but we're not going to tell him because that will create conflict." This might be you, "She needs to know she could make a much bigger contribution to the team" and "but I don't want to add tension to our relationship." Whatever your version of Jekyll and Hyde, don't let it stop you from trying what I'm about to lay out for you.

Visualize the Expectation. If you feel you need to give him or her feedback, this suggests they did something that fell short of your expectations. Before pointing this out to them, you need to be prepared to tell them two things:

  • Behavioral examples of what they did that fell short of your expectations;

  • Behavioral examples of what they could have done differently in the situation that would be in line with your expectations.

Converse. Now you're ready for the actual conversation. After telling them that you need to bring something to their attention, structure the feedback as follows:

Situation: Describe the actual situation (yesterday's meeting on the 2020 strategy, etc.) where his or her behavior was observed.

Behavior: Describe the actual behavior, as in "When Bob suggested we postpone, you began talking over him with your objections." Avoid at all costs focusing on attitude. Be sure you can back up your statements with observations you made in the moment.

Impact: This is the most overlooked but critical step. What impact did you see this behavior have on others -- co-workers, customers? Because none of us has perfect self-awareness, we don't always know the impact our behavior has on others. That's why it's crucial for an outside party to give us this type of feedback. Don't be surprised when the person says, "that was not my intent." Point out that, unfortunately, what matters to the other person is not your intention but what they experienced. Their perception is their reality.

React: Give the employee a moment or two to react to what you just shared with them. Let them express any pent up frustration they may have around this particular situation. Gauge how much denial they are generating.

Brainstorm next steps: Does the employee need to circle back with anyone to clarify his or her intentions? Is an apology in order? How best to handle similar situations in the future?

Let me know what questions you have.