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Three Tips for Giving Employees Difficult Feedback

By Susan Hall

Three Tips for Giving Employees Difficult Feedback

Do you struggle giving employees critical feedback? How do you make sure that challenging conversations are non-confrontational? In Episode 21 of the Strategic Insights Podcast, Susan Hall and Andrea McOwen share three tips to help managers and leaders give difficult employee feedback.

Susan Hall: 00:01 Hello and welcome to Strategic Insights, brought to you by Strategic Enhancement Group. I'm Susan Hall, Vice President Business Development & Performance Improvement and today I'm joined by my colleague, Andrea McOwen who is President of Strategic Enhancement Group. Welcome Andrea.

Andrea McOwen: 00:17 Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

Susan Hall: 00:18 It's always great to have you. Andrea, today we're here to talk about a topic that I think a lot of managers, especially new managers, struggle with. And that's how to give employees difficult feedback. It's one of those fundamental skills that can carry you through your entire management and leadership career, but there's definitely some best practices that I think we'd like to share with the team today. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, they discussed the impact of giving critical feedback and there are actually neurological studies that show that the brain responds to critical feedback as a threat and can even shut down. Think of it as like, if there's too much criticism, it's almost like a fight or a flight response.

So, while the objective of giving this type of feedback is to improve the performance of your employee, sometimes it can actually impair learning. We're assuming through our podcast today that this is feedback that's going to be used to improve the performance of an employee that you actually want to keep and develop. So, what are some of your thoughts on that?

Andrea McOwen: 01:27 Well, the first one is, you need to be prepared. Please don't just wing this, be respectful of the recipient and make sure that this is a really valuable conversation for them. Then also, identify the behavior that you want to see changed, and when I say behavior, I mean be very specific about an actual behavior rather than being general. Instead of saying, "I noticed that you were doing this wrong," be very specific and say, "I noticed that when you enter your reports, that you're missing these pieces." So, be very specific, and that's really important because the feedback won't go anywhere if it's not behaviorally based. Susan, you actually have an example of this.

Susan Hall: 02:09 I do, and it stuck with me over several decades, actually. When I started out in my sales career, many years ago I had a sales manager that made a call with me, and when we left the call to debrief, she said, "You know, you really need to just ask better questions." I was young, I was coachable, and I wanted to improve. So I said, "Great, how do I know what questions to ask?" She said, "Well, I don't know, you just ask them." And, I remember thinking, "We'll, that's not very helpful." I mean, sometimes you don't know, what you don't know, and because it was so general, it's like saying, "You need to communicate better." Well, what does that mean? Does that mean you need to ask questions? Does that mean you're interrupting? Does that mean you need to raise your voice? So, to your point, as specific as you can be, is going to be more helpful for the employee.

Andrea McOwen: 03:03 Right. The other thing that's important is determine how the behavior that you want to see changed, impacts their productivity or their communication, their performance goals or even relationships, so that they know what the consequence is of not correcting that behavior that you need to see changed.

Susan Hall: 03:20 Right, what the impact is, definitely. I think on that note, it's important not to overwhelm the recipient, as we talked about in the beginning with the whole fight or flight. Pick the one or two things that you think will move the needle the most in terms of productivity. Also, while this is about giving difficult feedback, don't forget to highlight what they're doing well.

Andrea McOwen: 03:44 That's a really good point. I think it's also important to share your observations and not make inferences. It's important to distinguish between the two. Observe the behavior and document it, so you have it in front of you and you know what you want to talk to them about.

Susan Hall: 03:59 That is a critical point. I would say that if I had one piece of advice to give to a new manager, it's be specific, as you said, but share observations, not judgment. Let's give an example of what that might look like. Say, you've got an employee who seems to be spending an hour or two of each business day on what appears to be personal calls. If you were making an inference or a judgment, you might walk up to John and say, "John, you know what? It seems that you appear to care more about your social life or your personal life than you do about business." Well, how do you think that makes John feel?

Andrea McOwen: 04:38 He'd be very defensive.

Susan Hall: 04:39 Absolutely. He'd be very defensive, and not only that, he could completely dismiss it, "Well, that's not true, that's not how I feel." A better way, is to be more specific, share an observation, and say something like, "John, I noticed that yesterday when I pulled up the call monitoring reports, you were on the phone five times with personal calls, and when I walked by your desk last week, I noticed three times, that you seem to be on a personal call. Can you tell me what's going on?"

Andrea McOwen: 05:09 That's a really good thing to do, and the reason that is, when you're giving feedback, you want to make sure that it's a two way dialogue. You want to make sure that you give them the opportunity to tell you what's happening. So in this case with John, if you're going to give feedback, do what you just said, but then let him answer. Just say, "I noticed you spent a lot of time on these personal calls, tell me what's going on?" Because what might happen is, you're assuming that he's not interested in completing his job and that could be very, very wrong. He could actually have a personal issue going on, that might mean, you need to be a little flexible and give him the opportunity to solve or deal with that personal issue. It's really important to let them speak and tell you what's happening.

Susan Hall: 05:55 Absolutely.

Andrea McOwen: 05:55 Another thing that's really important is putting together an action plan. Feedback is great and you want to be able to give it to them, but you don't want to just end it there. You want them to leave the room knowing what they should do from this point on. So, put together an action plan, but it's really important to involve them in the action steps, so that they feel like they had a say in this, and they'll have more buy in when they leave the room. Finally, I think the thing that people forget, it's a really key thing is, ask how you can support them. "We came up with the action plan, here are the changes we're going to see. What do you need from me? What can I do to help?"

Susan Hall: 06:33 That's a really important point. Back to my example of my first sales manager, if she had taken the time to sit down with me and think through how she came up with questions, her questioning process, or articulated and help me plan for a call, that would have been so much more helpful. As a result, I felt like I was on my own and it wasn't a good feeling. So, role playing with your people, preparing, helping them prepare for meetings, supporting them with resources. In the case of that manager, if she wasn't able to articulate how she went about her questioning protocol strategy, she might have been able to point me to a book or another resource, or a manager that was really clear on what they did and could articulate that.

Susan Hall: 07:26 Well, great. Andrea, we've covered a lot of ground today and I want to thank you again for your insights. So, what we've talked about is, it's important to plan when you're giving this type of feedback to employees. You certainly don't want to overwhelm them. You want to focus on the one or two things that are going to be most critical to their success. Be specific and behavioral with your observations, and make sure that you involve them in a two way dialogue around an action plan, follow up, and support. If you would like to learn more or have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us at and thanks so much for joining today.

Andrea McOwen: 08:10 Thanks everyone.

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Published: June 18, 2019

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Susan Hall

Vice President - Business Development & Performance Improvement

Susan brings over 20 years of experience working with global markets and organizations, helping them navigate through tough economic challenges while maintaining their margins. Since joining SEG in 1995, she has had the privilege of working with organizations that truly value the development of their employees and recognize the impact their people have on their bottom line results. Susan graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a double major in business management and speech communication. She has also completed course work toward her master's degree at Johns Hopkins University.

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