Few people enjoy giving negative feedback. We don't particularly like to receive it either. That's why we often refer to it as "tough." Negative feedback can be just as tough to deliver as it can be to receive.
The real purpose of giving tough feedback is to make a difference. It is important to keep that intended difference front and center as you prepare to deliver your message.
There are three things that can make a big difference in whether tough feedback results in improved performance or contributes to a downward spiral in confidence and performance.
Preparation is key, so before you give tough feedback, ask yourself:
1. Do your people trust that you are committed to them and their future?
The more trust your employees have in you, the more likely your feedback will be heard, considered and have the desired effect. Declaring your specific commitment to them and their future is a great way to begin the conversation, as it can create a condition of safety. Just make sure you are being sincere. If your relationship with the individual is weak, consider including someone who they do trust in the conversation.
2. What do you intend will happen or change as a result of your feedback?
Giving tough feedback is a delicate balance. If you're not clear on your expectations of what the employee should do to improve their performance, it can give the employee a sense of insecurity or uncertainty. But if you go into the conversation with clear objectives and requests, the employee will get the information and support they need to take effective action.
Now you may think this should be obvious. However, in the heat of the moment, especially if the employee is grappling with strong emotions, his or her thinking may not be so logical. Tough feedback can cause upheaval in an individual's confidence and can also provoke a fear response. Giving them certainty about the future - whether it is mapping out their next steps or reinforcing your commitment to their improvement - will set the stage to maximize the intended impact of your feedback.
3. What will you say? (Be specific)
The key to being heard is to be as direct as possible. By direct I mean clear and specific about your observations and assessments. Softening the message in any way to make them (or you) more comfortable can cloud the issue at hand, and will diminish the potential impact of your feedback.
The kindest and most honorable way to deliver a tough message is to simply say what you mean and mean what you say.
If you notice you are feeling hesitant or uncomfortable about giving feedback, it is crucial that you prepare before you sit down with the employee. I suggest you write down what you want to say. This will ensure you are clear and will help if you get thrown off by your own discomfort in the midst of giving feedback.
Think of a time when you received feedback that was hard to hear, but made a difference for you. What was it that made the difference for you?