March 5, 2022

Strategies: Giving Feedback Without Being Hurtful

March 5, 2022

Strategies: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Read the published article in Authority Magazine here.

Or read the highlighted blog version below:

Leadership is defined as a responsibility. It is having the boldness to lead by example, encourage through positive reinforcement, allowing direct reports the ability to learn by mistakes, and provide coaching during those tough situations.

Leadership includes being engaged and plugged-in to their team and seek opportunities for open dialogue. Leaders should be mentoring and paving the path for future generations to follow. Find employees opportunities for growth beyond their expectations and help them to achieve greatness. What I mean is that leadership is not only providing direction to others with an outstanding ethical compass but also having the willingness to be led when it is also time to listen or hand over the reins. Leadership evolves and keeps in mind when it’s time to change course. True leadership creates new paths, not necessarily ones that have already been taken.

During my 20+ years in my professional career, I have had to manage people and provide feedback.

They go hand-in-hand. Providing positive and negative feedback is an essential skill to managing a team. You must give both. The most difficult aspect of managing a team is dealing with many different personalities. This means the feedback you give one person may not be received the same way to another person. In my experience, adjusting your feedback delivery method is crucial to being an effective and strong leader or manager. Whether you’re managing one person, or several employees be aware of each employee’s receptivity to the different methods of feedback deliveries. Especially in my HR role, providing negative feedback became my forte. So much so that the leadership team nicknamed me “the velvet hammer”. This meant I could deliver negative feedback in such a compassionate way, they didn’t know what hit them.

At one point the company had to down-size over 50 employees and we were laying people off week after week. I was the one pulling the verbal trigger on each and every termination. I became so masterful at letting people go, I created a systematic flow and crafted my words with gentleness and compassion. That is how I got the nick name of The Velvet Hammer. I had it down to a science. Although it was something I never aimed to be good at doing because I didn’t enjoy it.

I told employees to hold their heads up high when we walked out to retrieve their belongings. I treated each employee with dignity, grace, and respect. Employees were walking out of my office with smiles, not tears. I had more than one person follow up with emails, thanking me on how I made them feel during an unpleasant event. I perfected my tone of voice, word selection, removing my emotions when inserting facts, but listening with a compassionate ear. Your statements need to be meaningful to be powerful and you don’t need a loud boisterous tone.

Reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader.

Providing honest and direct feedback is an essential ingredient of being an effective leader due to the fact it takes the guess work out of the equation for the employee. Have you ever had an annual review from your boss and was marked down on something you thought you were doing well? I have personally and I have seen many employees baffled at some of their ratings from their managers as I sign-off on annual reviews each year as a HR leader. Why is this? It is because some leaders find it difficult to give constructive feedback when occurrences happen. Most companies do not train managers or leaders to provide healthy, direct, and honest feedback with tactfulness. These are missed opportunities for the employee to grow and expand their professional potential. When a leader is able to provide this type of feedback, employees tend to push through because they have a clear direction and begin to shine when they take the feedback as intended in a healthy dose.

Being honest and direct doesn’t mean one should be cruel, unkind, or raise your voice. Provide the facts when sharing constructive feedback. It’s harder to dispute the facts. The trend is that employees respect candid, direct, and honest feedback because it builds trust. This is a key indicator of a mutually investable working relationship. No one wants to guess if they are doing well or when they are messing up. Leaders should be trained on providing clear, concise, constructive, and honest feedback. There are simply countless benefits, if it’s done responsibility and professionally.

Five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee:

  1. One of my favorite approaching is using the “sandwich method” when delivering constructive criticism via email to remote employees. This entails providing and starting with a positive introduction and/or statement to begin the communication. Next, identify the reason for the email with a thoughtful word selection that includes what I call “mindful messaging” to point out the construction feedback for improvement with honesty and a direct approach for clarity. The third piece I like to include in the ending of the email is to ask for their input or thoughts on the subject. One thing I learned is there is always more to the story.
  2. In the spirit of not coming across as too harsh when providing constructive criticism, stick to “fact finding”. Avoid statements such as “it feels like” or any passive statements that are more subjective. Provide clear concise statements with examples, data, or attachments of items that provide evidence to support your claim. Try avoiding hearsay, the discussed content should include items between you and the employee only. Unless documented and permission was granted. It is harder to dispute facts and reduces the employee from feeling attacked or defensive. Your declaration needs to be meaningful to be powerful and keep it short without the fluff.
  3. Engage with employees that will require constructive criticism by initially soliciting their feedback. I start out by asking “How do you think that went”? It does two things. One) You can see where their perspective falls. Sometimes employees are already aware of their shortcomings and it make things easier for the discussion. Two) This opens the dialogue to approach the topic by putting it on the table. If it becomes clear you are on opposite side of the spectrum, it would be better to move the conversation to a phone or video call, which I explained in more detail below in items #4 & #5. These methods can help reduce potential misunderstanding the email brings.
  4. Schedule or pick up the phone to have a one-on-one phone call when giving constructive criticism to a remote employee. If an initial email isn’t going well or you know a phone call will be a better approach to a delicate conversation, then try this method. Unlike email, we can read a person’s tone in their voice and sometimes when asking an employee a question, an empty space of silence and a blank stare can speak volumes. These non-verbal reactions are not translated through an email. Since social distancing, emails have become more the norm for fast and easy communications. However, not all conversations warrant brief discussions. The other advantage to a phone conversation is people are more willing to elaborate while talking then cementing comments into an email. When employees put communications in writing, they may be afraid they are going on the record and it may be used against them in some way. They may avoid being held accountable and so you may not find out the important parts of the story.
  5. My preferred method of giving honest feedback and gaging to ensure my message is not too harsh with a remote employee is a one-on-one video call (skype, zoom, team, etc.). It’s the next best thing to an in-person conversation. Giving constructive criticism is difficult regardless, then you add limitations onto it like, delivering unappealing messages via email or phone can compound the issue. What I do like about video calls is that a manager can visibly see the employee’s reaction to the content of the critique. I usually start the call out by outlining the conversation as a “do-better” talk. This is not something I would typically type in an email so the informality of talking usually puts people more at ease.

While I am expressing the constructive criticism, I place heavy focus on the receiver’s facial expressions. Most people don’t even realize how big their eyes get, or their smile disappears, or the concerning looks that appear when they grow quiet. Once I notice the non-verbal ques, I can start engaging them in the conversation to allow them the opportunity to provide their feedback. This helps defuses the situation and helps to maintain a two-way conversation to ensure that the feedback isn’t coming across as too harsh. Listening is one of the best tools of communication. For these reasons, I would highly recommend a video call if the topic could ruffle some feathers.

To avoid sounding too critical or harsh in an email, make sure you turn on your filter with three things in mind when providing constructive feedback:

1. Is it helpful? (In what way?)

2. Will it prevent a negative outcome? (In what way?)

3. Will it have a positive impact in the long run? (In what way?)

Focus on filtering and answering those three questions before you push send. If you are just venting or irritated by someone’s behavior, really consider if it’s really worth your time and energy. Make sure your feedback is meaningful because you can’t undo a sent email and you will not be able to see their response as you can in person.

To summarize the best time to give feedback or to critique someone is to evaluate the situation. Each one is unique. Waiting too long could give employees the wrong impression that it was not impactful. Reacting too quickly when emotions are running high could be detrimental. My boss once told me, a manager should go a level up to discuss situation when in doubt. I think that is good advice.

To be a great boss you must set clear expectations. An employee cannot hit the bull-eye if the target is not in sight or if there is a moving target. This includes continuous and clear communications, which are essential ingredients. An effective boss has open lines of regular communication. This also means being a good listener to their employees. A great boss sees your potential and challenges you with opportunities to push you to grow as well as gives you the autonomy to find your way. A great boss allows a margin for error and seeks to teach through those moments with dignity and support. Trust is a must. Knowing your boss is there when you need guidance and has your best interest in mind. The best boss allows for mutual respect and leads by example. The best boss sees the professional relationship as a give and take allowing employees to be human and not perfect robots.

Shell M. Phelps, HR Thought Leader, Phelps Strategies, LLC