Learning to give negative feedback not only constructively, but gracefully, is one of the toughest and most important lessons of being an effective entrepreneur or business professional because it’s one of the skills that elevates you from being a manager to being a leader. However, if you’re like me, it’s probably high up there on your list of least favorite things to do. Often it’s not fun, but it’s essential to building an organization or team that’s always improving and advancing.
And it doesn’t need to be that painful. If you’ve set the right context for your organization or team and if you deliver the feedback appropriately with the right ‘feedback foundation’ (which I’ll address next week), there is no need to be anxious about delivering feedback. It’s even possible to create an organization that embraces it.
Take a moment and recall the last time you heard surprising feedback from a frustrated co-worker, manager or even an upset significant other. How much of your own reaction was driven by the ‘out of the blue’ nature rather than from the content of the feedback itself? When you’re surprised, it’s easy to spend more time defending yourself than working on a solution.
At its essence, delivering negative feedback gracefully is first about creating a culture where it can be delivered within the proper context and with the right structure. I’ve found when leaders take the time to build the right foundation, they create teams that are pre-wired to think critically when feedback is delivered rather than be left ‘reeling’. Take the time to build that right foundation.
As you build you team or company, make sure that you’re creating an environment where you can frame feedback constructively as part of executing on a shared vision. For me, that means being rigorous in establishing context and setting expectations upfront both at the individual and team level:
- Set Objectives – Establish where your company or team is going. Maybe you’re launching a revolutionary new product or trying to double the size of a company within 3 years. Make sure your team is on board and gets it. It’s much easier to deliver negative feedback in the context of shared goals. For example, imagine a scenario where your team is counting on one of your developers, but you’re seeing too many errors in his or her code. Framing the feedback around pre-established and agreed upon team’s goals can be very powerful in changing behavior and driving improvement. You’re underscoring that the feedback isn’t about your dynamic with the developer, but about a team mission and bigger picture objective that is at risk.
- Embrace Professional Development– Take the time to develop a shared understanding of professional development objectives – both strengths and opportunities for improvement – with each person on your team upfront. Simply, if you know where your team members want to go professionally and you’ve had discussions about their career objectives, it’s a lot easier to identify roadblocks and areas for improvement. For instance, if you know your IT manager wants to be CTO one day, then framing feedback within that context can be very effective.
- Clarify Expectations – Set clear expectations for performance and behavior before any feedback is given. Expectations can come in many forms from simple deadlines and minimum performance requirements to detailed metrics. I’ve found time and time again that if you and your team develop clear expectations and standards for performance, it’s a lot easier to give feedback when they aren’t being met. Make sure they are well documented and explicitly agreed upon by everyone.
Without a doubt, it’s a lot easier to give negative feedback if you’ve set the right context and you’re working together towards shared objectives and mutually agreed upon expectations. And feedback that is delivered in the right context can be incredibly motivating. However, as an entrepreneur, a CEO or a manager, how much time have you devoted recently to setting context? Think about your last week. It doesn’t happen overnight and requires consistent communication, but I’ve found if it is done right and combined with the correct ‘feedback foundation’, it makes those difficult discussions much easier.
In the meantime, I’m curious if anyone has any tips on setting context or shared objectives or examples of cases where they may not have set clear expectations and it came back to haunt them?