Giving Difficult Feedback

We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve. 

—Bill Gates


Effective leaders know the value of surrounding themselves with the best people they can find. You want your team, department, or organization to be made up of skilled, ambitious, innovative, engaged go-getters. None of those qualities are innate, though. All of them can be learned—which is why one of your jobs as a leader is giving difficult feedback so they can be as awesome as you want them to be!


To help their employees improve, managers have a number of tools at their disposal, with the three most prominent being training, coaching, and feedback. Training includes workshops, job shadows, courses, and other structured educational activities. Coaching helps people move ahead by releasing their potential (even if they don’t know they have it in them!). With their focus on future behavior, both training and coaching fall squarely in the “developmental” category.


Feedback, however, stands apart from those two because it focuses on an employee’s past behavior. It’s evaluative—a way to analyze and assess something that someone has already done. And its ultimate goal is to help people learn from their previous mistakes or shortcomings and change their future actions. 


Like it or not, giving difficult feedback will happen during your career as a manager. Sometimes we’re talking about a minor course correction delivered via a mildly uncomfortable conversation; sometimes we’re talking about a pretty intense “shape up and fly right, or you’re out of here” moment. I think that knowing how to deliver feedback—especially difficult feedback—is one of the most powerful skills a manager can have. So you aren’t already feeling pretty at this, take the time to develop your skills in this area. (See “The Art of Giving Honest and Effective Feedback” and “Making the Connection: Using Effective Feedback to Motivate and Engage.”) 


Positive feedback can reinforce and reward behavior that is desirable. But sometimes leaders have to give feedback in order to highlight and offer recommendations (or directions) for addressing behavior that is, well, not so desirable. This kind of feedback isn’t something that’s easy to hear. And for many leaders, giving difficult feedback is well, difficult to give, too.


Why is giving difficult feedback hard?


All things are difficult before they are easy. 

—Thomas Fuller


Why do we hesitate when it comes to giving difficult feedback? Why is it so stressful to talk about someone’s poor performance?


Conversations centered on difficult feedback usually have one or more of the following three themes:


  • A description of the issue at hand (that is, “what happened?”)”: Because this conversation is usually about how something didn’t go to plan (or how someone didn’t meet expectations), it tends to have an element of “right versus wrong.” No one likes to be in the wrong, and no one wants to be blamed when things go awry. At the same time, few people relish being the bearer of bad tidings.
  • Strong feelings: Emotions can run high when people feel criticized, and in those moments they don’t always think—or act—with clear heads.
  • Challenges to identity: Discussing someone’s mistakes or areas that need improvement can have a negative effect on their self esteem or sense of self.


Although these three elements are distinct, they often interact with and even magnify each other, thus compounding the challenges. In order to mitigate the harmful effects of those three elements, you need to understand their causes.


Difficult conversations (such as those about feedback) are often scaffolded on assumptions about three things:


  • Truth. We assume (incorrectly) that “I am right, and you are wrong” when the issue at hand actually isn’t about getting the facts right but is about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values.
  • Intention. We assume that we know others’ intentions when we do not. We also assume others know our intentions when they do not.
  • Blame. The common assumption that we operate within a binary, zero-sum system of fault distracts us from exploring why things went wrong and how to correct them.


How do you get past these hurdles?


The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.

—Zig Ziglar


Giving Difficult FeedbackFirst and foremost, remember that feedback is a developmental tool—not a punitive one. If the employee is utterly unresponsive to your feedback and it proves ineffective, that could lead to more substantive conversations and possibly dire consequences down the line. But from the outset, your attitude should be “I want to help this person improve.” If you work from that perspective—and if your employee has the attitude of “I want to improve”—then success is all but guaranteed.


Don’t go in hot! Remember: you want to keep this employee around, and you want them to improve. So don’t approach the situation with a “my way or the highway” attitude or try to make your employee feel inferior or stupid or incompetent. (Yes, you’re the boss. But the best leaders inspire and engage—
and avoid being arrogant jerks.) On that same note, ditch the “right versus wrong” and “winner versus loser” binaries that can put people on the defensive, and instead think of this proces
s as trying to come up with a win-win situation for everyone.


Your goal here is to help them. So view their mistakes as learning opportunities—and encourage them to see things from that perspective too. When someone is in the early stages of their career or is learning something new, they’re more likely to make mistakes. Don’t confuse a failed attempt with a failed person. As long as they are willing and able to learn, they are moving forward.


Keep communication top of mind. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: effective feedback starts with effective communication. You can’t expect people to change or improve if you don’t clearly communicate to them what the problem is and what you want them to do to address it. Remember, too, that communication isn’t “I talk, and you listen.” Communication is a two-way process in which all parties talk and listen (though not everyone all at once, of course!). 


Lastly, don’t forget that being an ostrich is not an option. Pretending that a problem doesn’t exist won’t make it go away but actually gives it space to persist, fester . . . and spread. Left unaddressed, one problematic situation can lead to several crises. So put on your Big Kid Pants, remind yourself that dealing with problems is part of your job, and step up to give difficult feedback where it’s needed.


Plan your plan for giving difficult feedback—then execute it


Good planning is important.

—Edmund Hillary


First, once you’ve determined that this situation requires feedback, gather your data. Verify and double check your information about the employee’s performance so you are certain that you’re dealing with objective facts. 


Figure out what the employee needs to do to get back on track. This should include a detailed list of changes you want to see, as well as a timeline for achieving those goals. 


Giving Difficult FeedbackPrepare focused questions for the employee. These will enable you to get their perspective on the situation—and ask for their opinions, too, on how to move forward. Often, people who receive difficult feedback already know they are struggling in some ways but can’t quite put their finger on why. (Or perhaps they see things in such a different light that you’ll learn something yourself during this conversation.) 


Schedule the meeting time and place. Unless you both work remotely and don’t live anywhere near each other, avoid having this conversation by phone or by Zoom. Have it take place in person, so you can interact directly with each other. Try to meet in the morning (before people get tired), and do so in a “neutral” space, such as a meeting room (rather than in your office or theirs). If possible, sit together at a round table, rather than converse across a desk (positioning that can carry adversarial connotations).


Create an agenda for your meeting and be sure to follow it! Keep laser focused on it during your conversation. If you ramble or try to improvise on the spot, you may end up making missteps and communicating stuff that at best is irrelevant or at worst could bite you in the butt later.


During the meeting, as you present your information, don’t get emotional. That doesn’t mean you should be cold—there’s always room for empathy and compassion in your conversations. But as you lay out the facts and your instructions, you need to be both the boss who wants someone’s work to improve in order to help the company and the boss who wants someone to improve themselves for their own sake. What you have to say isn’t personal: it’s not about someone’s personality but about their work.


If your employee gets emotional or disengages, the right questions can help shift their focus back to the issues at hand. For example, ask them “What information might you have that I don’t?” or “How do you see this differently?”


Schedule follow-up meetings. Your goal with these isn’t just to check up on the employee and “nudge” them to stay on track, but also to provide positive support for them if they need it.


Write everything down. “Document, document, document” should be your mantra as you navigate these waters.


When to involve HR


When you see that the head of human resources is sitting in the meeting you’ve been called into, it’s not a good sign. 

—Shannon Bream


Sometimes, the problem is beyond the scope of what feedback and development can address. You may need to consult with your HR department if performance doesn’t improve even after multiple interventions, for example, or the employee’s attitude is damaging the entire team or department. If you feel that you’re running out of options (or nearing your wit’s end), get HR involved when it’s time to issue a written warning—or take more drastic steps. Because this course of action can be fraught with all sorts of legal complications, definitely bring in the experts. 


The prize: long-term positive results


The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.



As the manager, you occupy a position of authority. Sometimes that authority requires you to have conversations that range from awkward to downright unpleasant, and giving difficult feedback lands somewhere on that continuum. 


Giving Difficult FeedbackBut when you fulfill that responsibility (and do so while treating people with empathy and without being judgmental) you’ll build stronger relationships with your employees. Those relationships can inspire them to do even better work and feel more engaged and happier in their jobs—all of which not only helps yourcompany’s bottom line but also helps your employees’ careers and personal lives, too. The result is a win-win situation all around.


Do you have any experience with difficult feedback, as either a giver or a receiver? What strategies were especially effective? (Or what do you think should have been handled differently?) Please share your stories in the comments below!


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