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Stop Softening Tough Feedback

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Dane Jensen and Peggy Baumgartner for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy

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As a manager, you’ve likely served a subordinate a “feedback sandwich”: two pieces of positive reinforcement wrapped around a thick slice of criticism. It makes correcting people easier for you, but it rarely achieves the goal of helping someone improve. For people with strong egos, the criticism goes down too easily, while highly self-critical employees can choke on it. Others can find the mixed messages merely confusing. Our work with hundreds of business leaders, executive coaches, and sports coaches reveals that the best managers give feedback differently: They focus squarely on what needs to change. They pinpoint for the employee the behavior in question, dispassionately describe its impact, and work out precisely what the employee should do differently in the future.

Some sandwiches are performance-oriented: “Vivek, great work on the strategy for the launch. Unfortunately, the execution hasn’t been effective, and we need to talk about the details that are getting missed. With such a great strategic foundation, however, I have no doubt we can turn it around.” Others are about style: “You are delivering great results right now, Jim. As appreciated as that is, you are riding your team hard, and it’s starting to create issues. But the results are really tremendous and given how personable you are, I know you’ll make everyone feel appreciated.”

In either case, this feels like a sneak attack to the person on the receiving end. And, as a leader, you’ve wasted reinforcing feedback (“great work on the strategy for the launch”) that could have had a positive impact on performance and morale if it was delivered independently. If you want to deliver feedback in a way that isn’t confusing and doesn’t feel like a sneak attack, here is how to construct it:

Describe the behavior that you want to reinforce or correct. This should be free from evaluative language (such as “you were really rude in that meeting”) and instead consist entirely of descriptive language (“I noticed you interrupted the client twice in that meeting”). This ability to separate observations from interpretations is the cornerstone of effective feedback because it minimizes the potential for debate (“I wasn’t rude; I was direct! Isn’t candor one of our values?”) and keeps the discussion focused squarely on observable facts.

Explain the impact of the behavior. This is what invests the feedback with importance. People need to know what is at stake. When explaining impact, avoid self-serving statements like “you really made me look bad in there” and focus instead on them: “You missed an opportunity to learn more about your client.” If it’s a repeat behavior, don’t shy away from discussing its effect on the team member’s relationship with you (“I’m starting to feel frustrated, and it’s creating friction between us”). The relationship someone has with their manager is a vital element of the job environment, and if it’s being impacted, it’s important for that person to be aware of that.

Outline what you would like them to do. This can be accomplished through direct instruction (“next time, if a thought comes up while the client is speaking, jot it down and wait until they finish before jumping in”). Or you can ask them what they could do next time. But ask only if you don’t have a specific behavior in mind that you would like to see. It’s not fair to ask people to guess what you want them to do. In both cases, the close should be forward-looking. People can’t change the past — and asking questions like “Why did you jump in?” feels like scolding, not coaching. The goal of a feedback conversation is to resolve the issue for the future.

Consider a situation that we encountered in our work recently with a large retail bank, which was seeking to increase its share of its customers’ wallets by winning their mortgage business. A manager observed one of the representatives at a branch efficiently process a request for a $10,000 certified check but fail to ask any questions about why the client needed the funds.

Faced with a performance that had both good and bad elements, the manager’s tendency was to deliver a sandwich: “Great job in processing that money order quickly; you got the client in and out really efficiently. But in moving quickly you didn’t ask any questions about what it was for. We could have uncovered an opportunity to talk about our mortgage offerings, and you know how important that is to the bank right now. One thing I definitely noticed, though, is how great the relationships are that you have with your clients.”

The result? Mixed messages and a lack of clarity.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dane Jensen is CEO of Third Factor, an inter-disciplinary leadership development firm that operates in sport, business, academia, and government. He is affiliate faculty at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina, teaches at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Canada, and is the author of the book, “The Power of Pressure” (Harper Collins, Spring 2021).
Peggy Baumgartner is the chief learning officer of Third Factor, an inter-disciplinary leadership development firm that operates in sport, business, academia, and government. She teaches at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.


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