Crying, yelling, table-pounding anger and shock. And no, I’m not describing my actions when I invested two-hours in watching a season finale of my favorite show to learn the DVR malfunctioned at the critical moment. Rather, these are the emotions every experienced manager faces at some point during a feedback discussion.
As a reminder: well-intended and properly planned and delivered feedback is intended to reinforce the behaviors that create high performance (positive feedback) and strengthen or eliminate those that detract from performance (constructive feedback).
Of course, your best planning, careful observation, and deft delivery sometimes blow up in your face when the feedback receiver feels accused, blamed, or attacked. Learning to steer a runaway feedback discussion back on track is an essential survival and success skill for managers.
First, Aim for Quality:
A quality feedback discussion is based on a specific, observed behavior linked to a business outcome. Deft deliverers of constructive and positive feedback plan their discussions with the intent of promoting a dialog and identifying opportunities to reinforce, strengthen, or change the business-impacting behavior.
In programs on mastering feedback, I teach participants to carefully plan an opening sentence, focusing on the observed behavior and its business impact. In my experience, a carefully constructed opening sentence tilts the discussion in the right direction. And no, the opening sentence doesn’t start with, “You’ve been doing a great job, but… .” No “but” sandwiches, please!
Performance feedback is based handled as a discussion where both parties focus on understanding what happened and then building a game-plan for the future. I love the idea of moving away from a past view and focusing on what behaviors and outcomes should look like in the future.
All of the above is good, except that not everyone reacts to what you’ve crafted in your mind or on paper as sage coaching guidance. Yes, even the best planning, careful observation, and deft delivery sometimes blow up in your face when the receiver feels accused, blamed, or attacked.
3 Common Adverse Reactions in Feedback Discussions and How to Maintain Control:
I’ve been accused of being a bit cold on this point, however, I don’t mind crying and I don’t let it throw me off. I do however, empathize, and adapt to the individual.
Some people react to what they perceive are emotional situations with tears. Unfortunately, if you’re uncomfortable with someone else’s tears (and many are), it is difficult to steer the conversation back on track.
Unless the crying reduces to uncontrollable sobbing, it’s OK to proffer a tissue, acknowledge the issue is emotional, and then gently reiterate the business issue at the center of the feedback. Make sure your body language and verbal tone remain soft and unthreatening and use gentle questions to probe for understanding of the topic, not the tears. Many tearful discussions resolve favorably with this gentle approach.
If the individual is not able to communicate or think and speak clearly, reschedule the session for the next day.
“I’ve never been told that before,” is the common phrase that signals shock in feedback discussions.
One manager described this reaction from a team member during a discussion where the planned outcome was a performance plan (code for: fix it, or you’ll be fired). The manager was distressed because in her mind she had communicated the issues on multiple prior occasions. When I asked how the feedback had been presented in these earlier meetings, it was clear why the receiver was shocked. The message was muddled and sandwiched between positive praise. Often, the manager’s poor handling of earlier feedback sets the stage for shock.
A strategy for navigating shock is to back up a few steps, reiterate the observation, behavior, and business impact. Ask clarifying questions, and encourage the receiver to drill down for clarity. If you’ve done your homework, you are prepared to explain the situation. If the fault is ultimately yours as in the case of the manager above, I encourage you to reset the clock and start a fresh feedback cycle. Hold the performance program and mutually design an approach to remedy the challenge moving forward. Make sure to meet regularly to discuss progress versus the feedback.
Every experienced manager has run into this at least once. Turnabout happens when regardless of your careful planning and cogent opening sentence delivery, the receiver immediately suggests, “This is all your fault because you’re a lousy manager.” Before you know it, you find yourself defending yourself, and the purpose of the feedback discussion is lost.
I prefer a disarming acknowledgment with a firm anchor on my opening statement. It might sound something like: “I can appreciate your concerns about me as a manager, however, this discussion is about… .” I reiterate the opening statement using the observed behavior and business impact. I then follow-on with a question seeking confirmation of the purpose of the discussion. If the turnabout play persists, I tighten up the body language and voice to the almost stern setting and reiterate the point of the discussion.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
In my experience, good people want all the meaningful feedback you can provide. They want to improve and grow. Ultimately, you as the manager own creating an environment where individuals are comfortable receiving and giving feedback. You know it’s working when team members share feedback with each other and comfortably provide you with quality feedback that supports you strengthening your performance as a manager. If you are regularly running into the different issues described in this article, spend some time educating the group on why we give performance feedback and what the intent is every single time. And then redouble your efforts to provide clear, timely, behavioral, business-focused feedback.