how to give tough feedback
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People Management

How to Give Tough Feedback

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

When delivering negative feedback we think we must be firm — even mean. Instead, here’s how to give tough feedback that actually motivates change.

I once worked with a midlevel manager who, when advised of someone’s shoddy work or bad behavior, would inevitably respond with a simple, “Okay, I’ll tell her.” And that was exactly what he would do: Take the person aside, metaphorically hold his nose, and say something like, “You don’t write very well. You need to do a better job.” Then he would walk away, satisfied he’d done the really hard work that earned him the big bucks.

Unfortunately, I also observed there was rarely any change or improvement in performance. And he had a hard time keeping good people in his group.

How to Give Tough Feedback That Helps People Grow

The ability to give negative feedback is frequently cited as a defining characteristic of a strong leader. Culturally, we perceive that a certain amount of toughness is required to reprimand a team member. When delivering negative feedback, we think we must be firm and unyielding (even a tad mean), as well as impervious to defensiveness or anger.

But before you go into full-on Godzilla mode, let’s turn that perception inside out and try something that actually works. Here are five suggestions that can help you solve the problem at hand by motivating change. You want to allow the subject of your criticism to grow into the kind of team member you wish to have around.

1. First, get clear. The goal of delivering the difficult message to that young associate who’s always roaming the halls instead of working is not to make him feel bad. Rather, the goal is to solve a business problem. (When, since Victorian-era workhouses, has feeling bad ever improved performance?) In this case, let’s say your business problem is missed deadlines because this chatty fellow isn’t focused. Get this clear in your own mind before your conversation begins. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having a conversation about whether or not he’s a goof-off, instead of working together to solve the problem of deadlines. The difference really matters.

(See “How to Give Good Feedback Without Feeling Like a Bosshole” by Dina Eisenberg.)

2. Speak in the passive voice, not the active. Instead of “You are a poor writer,” go with “That report was poorly written.” It’s subtle, but you can see how the passive voice shifts the focus to the report instead of the person. It sets the stage for discussing the report instead of focusing on what is wrong with the person. Then, rather than go on and on about how poorly written the report is, explain how its poor quality affected you and others:

“Because the client didn’t understand the report, we had to spend the meeting explaining rather than moving on to the urgent matter we should have dealt with.”

Now you’re talking about the client — another good move because your subject can understand why the poorly written report was a problem and figure out with you how to avoid a repeat before the next meeting.

3. Make suggestions actionable. True story. A fifth-year tax associate at a Midwestern law firm was told she probably wasn’t going to make partner because “you don’t think like the rest of us. Your thinking is too circular.” Well, isn’t that helpful! If actual improvement is the outcome you want from performance feedback, you’ll need to learn how to give feedback that is a bit more specific. Try talking about the impact rather than the activity:

“Sherry, while your observations are ultimately unique and helpful, when you verbally rehash the entire legal issue and think out loud about all possible solutions in group meetings, others in the department perceive you as a slow thinker. Often we have all stopped listening to you by the time you get to the good part. Let’s figure out how you can do some preparation prior to the meeting to avoid that.”

There. Now there’s something she can actually do … and you can help her figure out how to do it.

4. Invite collaboration. As with Sherry, if you are interested in the young attorney growing in a way that justifies the investment you’ve already made in her, you must be willing to team with her to identify the best action to solve the performance issue. In some cases, this may even mean that you commit to an ongoing review of her work or periodic spot checks.

5. Encourage the heart. It may sound trite, but in 1995 Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner conducted a study that found “performance was higher when people were led by individuals who gave more encouragement.” Now, thinking about your own experience on high-performing teams, don’t you agree that encouragement and positive support for your work played a big part? So when you work with others on improving their professional performance, don’t neglect to communicate in a positive way and to leave them feeling you want them to succeed — because their success is important to the success of the effort. You want them to feel you believe in them. Because you do, right?

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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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