Giving tough feedback, no matter how well meaning and how necessary it may be, is hard for most people. Perhaps this is partly because receiving feedback is rarely a pleasant experience. Many of us are hesitant because we have been in their shoes and would rather not inflict the pain we anticipate they might feel.
Other times we brace ourselves for being on the other end of what could be a strong emotional reaction. After all, dealing with other people's unpleasant emotions is actually painful for us, too.
Then there are those times when someone welcomes the feedback because they want to be and do better. It would be easy to chalk this up to personality - some people are just less sensitive and more positive than others. But that would be a mistake. Why? Because it implies that you as a leader have no ability to influence the situation. The reality is you have more power than you may think.
To deliver difficult feedback and have it make a positive impact there are 3 things you must attend to:
Caring About Them
Just because you are someone's boss or hold a superior position, does not mean they will welcome your feedback. In fact, it can be harder for an employee to hear tough feedback from a superior because they have power over them, whether it is socially or financially. The key to opening the door to having your tough feedback received in a way that makes a difference, rather than sparking a defensive reaction or not being heard, will be largely based on the extent to which they feel you care about them and are committed to their future.
Setting a Context of Commitment for Their Future
The only context that will empower someone to take in difficult feedback is when they believe it can serve their future. For example, people are more apt to be able to hear that they screwed up when they believe you are delivering the feedback to help them improve, vs. to simply tell them that they screwed up. The former is likely to leave them with hope that they can redeem themselves and grow, whereas the latter will more likely leave them feeling embarrassed and/or angry.
An effective way to set the context for tough feedback is to presence the commitment your feedback can help them realize. It could be they want to be more influential, develop themselves as a leader, get a promotion, be better liked or included more. It doesn't matter how lofty the commitment, but it does have to matter enough for them to want to hear the bad news. The key is to make sure you focus on their commitment or aspiration vs. your aspiration for them.
Establishing a Condition of Choice
Whether you recognize it or not people have a choice regarding whether they will hear and internalize your feedback or not regardless of whether they have a choice to listen to you. Even if you are a boss, there is no guarantee which one they will choose. Caring and setting a powerful context for your feedback are important preparation, but the ultimate condition you must create for your feedback to land well is one of choice.
Sometimes the choice is whether to listen to your feedback at all. Other times, for example during a performance review, the choice is how or when they will listen.
I care about you. I am committed to your future. You have a choice.
Create those conditions consistently and you will not only be more effective at giving feedback. You will also be a more effective leader in every interaction.