Apart from public speaking, nothing else seems to strike more fear into the hearts of people in the workplace than having to deliver constructive feedback to a direct report, peer or manager.
There are plenty of feedback models out there and the purpose of this post is not to complicate matters by teaching you another one. My intention is to bring to your attention some of the mistakes people make when delivering their feedback.
So to begin with let me clarify why you would use a feedback model:
Mistake 1: Calling the feedback "negative" feedback.
You will have likely heard the saying "Words have power" and this is especially true within the context of a feedback conversation. How you frame the conversation for yourself is likely to affect the way your brain processes information relating to the feedback conversation. If you label the conversation as "negative", then you're likely to work yourself into a state of flight, fight or freeze before you have even come in contact with the recipient of the feedback.
The solution: Frame the conversation as a constructive or developmental feedback conversation. Your aim in the conversation should be to provide important information to the recipient that may increase their self awareness, aid their development or improve their performance. By reframing the conversation in this way, you will be calmer going in to the conversation as what you have to offer is of potential value to the recipient.
Mistake 2: Failing to cleanly separate identity from behaviours.
Compare the following statements:
"You're arrogant" and "That behaviour is perceived as being arrogant". Despite the word arrogant being used, which of the two is likely to be better received?
Let's break the statements down:
"You're arrogant" is a statement that presents a perception as fact and targets the person's identity. This type of statement is likely to elicit a response along the lines of "I'm not an arrogant person!" and entrench the person further in their worldview, while they disregard the feedback you are seeking to communicate. It is also likely to turn your feedback into criticism which more often than not targets the person rather than their behaviours.
"That behaviour is perceived as being arrogant" cleanly separates the person's identity and labels the behaviour as arrogant. Secondly, even though the statement is worded strongly it highlights that this is a perception not a fact.
The solution: Separate the person's identity from their behaviour when giving constructive feedback. Doing so minimises a perceived threat or insult to their ego, which reduces the chances of a status threat. Additionally, it is far easier for someone to adjust their behaviours rather than change who they are.
Mistake 3: Entrenching disagreement.
When people script their feedback they often don't consider how they are going to promote agreement throughout the conversation or manage disagreement if it occurs. A common mistake I see with workshop participants and coaching clients is their tendency to lead off with a subjective statement. An example of a subjective statement might sound like, "John I would like to talk with you about your poor sales results." This type of statement opens the door for John to instantly rebut the value judgement of "poor sales results" with his own perspective on his performance. As a result of this subjective framing, it establishes disagreement and also has the potential to promote defensiveness due to a perceived status threat. Social science research has repeatedly shown that people have an intrinsic desire to be seen to be consistent in their publicly stated beliefs and their displayed behaviours. This can mean that people will commit to a course of action even if it is to their detriment. Given the outcome of a feedback conversation is to develop a mutually agreed solution on how to move forward, commencing the discussion with a rebuttal is not ideal.
The solution: Start the conversation referencing specific behaviours without attaching meaning or value judgements to those behaviours. Where possible, use incontrovertible data and facts to set the context and promote agreement. In the previous example with John, this might sound like "John I would like to discuss last quarter's sales stats. As you can see by the sales report your closing rate was 50% relative to the benchmark closing rate of 75%." Without framing it as "poor performance" and by presenting objective data, the likelihood is that John will agree that the report states what you say it does.
After gaining agreement on the objective observation of behaviour or data, you can now lead into a subjective interpretation of what that behaviour means to you and the recipient. At this point in the conversation you should be prepared for a difference in perspectives. This is where the recipient might engage in blame, justification and denial in order to displace accountability for their actions. A strategy for promoting agreement at this point in the conversation is to be prepared to "agree to disagree" about the differences in perception. The goal here is not to quibble about subjective interpretations, your goal is to ultimately gain agreement on a mutually agreeable course of action so that both parties can move forward. As such, listen to what the person has to say. Acknowledge their perspective using the active listening process and link your perspective to theirs using the word "and" instead of "but". Unlike the word "but" which negates whatever precedes it, the word "and" allows two seemingly opposite view points to co-exist in the same sentence.
Once you have linked your perspective to theirs, re-visit the originally agreed behaviours / facts / data and reconfirm their agreement and acknowledgment that the situation or result exists, regardless of either party's subjective perspective on what it might mean. This helps promote agreement and enables you to counter the expected disagreement.
With both parties agreeing the situation exists despite the differences in perspective; you are now in a better position to start working together on creating a mutually agreeable solution. Remember the key to doing this well is to immediately counter any disagreement by seeking agreement on objective facts and observations, without going toe to toe with the objection. In the field of NLP this is known as establishing an agreement frame.
To recap the solutions: