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Turning negative feedback into constructive dialogue

(This article, written by Sarah Hanson, appeared in the March edition of ‘Incentive and Motivation Magazine’. Click here to read the original.)

When it comes to managing people, long-term, high-quality relationships based on mutual respect and trust are the standard to which we should all aspire.  In this context, what advice can be given to managers to help broach the difficult topic of underperformance in a way that doesn’t damage the relationship or demotivate the team member, making things worse rather than better?


The risk is that a manager will either skirt around the subject, leaving their team members confused or unaware of what’s being asked for; or they will ask (or tell) someone in a way so brutally direct that the relationship is wounded; and from there, it’s a long road to recovery. How do you combine both directness and respect in addressing this delicate situation?


I want first to suggest a couple of rules to follow throughout a meeting of this kind, then to look at some ideas for kicking the meeting off.


Rule 1. Avoid value judgments

You are NOT an all-seeing, all-knowing Guardian of the Truth, so don’t suggest that you believe you are by making value judgments such as “This isn’t the right way to go about things” or “That’s not how a report should be written”. You ARE nevertheless an experienced manager and your opinion is valuable. “I’m not comfortable with this way of doing things” or “I’d like you to write reports in a different way” are far more legitimate as statements, and your colleague will consequently be far more receptive to them.


Rule 2. Focus on the future not the past.

Be clear throughout the meeting that it’s not about criticising the past, it’s about constructing for the future.  Favour requests over reproaches: “I need you to do this” rather than “you really shouldn’t have done that”.  The other person will be defensive when confronted with a reproach about the past; they will find it very difficult to be defensive when given a request for the future.


Starting the meeting

Preparing the key elements below to structure your approach to the conversation will ensure you’re able to present your case in a way that increases your chances of being heard and of your colleague being receptive to change.

  1. Decide what you want from the meeting
  2. Prepare your case (in the light of the outcome you’ve chosen)
  3. Think about how having this meeting makes you feel  

 Decide what you want

 As in most areas of human endeavour, you’ll be more effective in a meeting when you have a clear idea of your destination.  You should make a distinction between business goals (measurable next week, next month, next quarter) and meeting goals, measurable at the end of the meeting. Only by having a clear goal for the meeting will you conclude the conversation knowing exactly where you both are relative to that goal. What do you want your team member to say or do at the end of the meeting? Or what do you want to produce together?


In the case of giving feedback – and remember that this meeting is about constructing for the future – you will probably be happy if together you agree on a plan for turning things around. And if the other person then promises he or she will do their very best to execute that plan with no loss of motivation. So there are some possible goals for the meeting which are distinct and concrete.


Prepare your case

Having decided on your goals, what will you have prepared / thought about before the meeting which makes it reasonable for you to suppose you can achieve those goals? You’ll probably need to explain what you want doing differently in the future; and to have brought along YOUR ideas for a plan for turning things round.


Think about how having the meeting makes you feel

Based on your knowledge of the other person and the relationship you have with them , how will you feel about having the meeting and in particular about announcing your goals?  How you feel will be very different according to your personality and the personality of the person opposite. There’ll probably be a mix of discomfort and a feeling that it’s your job to give honest feedback to your team members.  Being able to articulate openly how you feel will make it easier for you to tackle difficult subjects, it will create empathy and help to establish an atmosphere of openness which will then inform the whole conversation.


Use these elements to start the meeting

Here’s an example of how using those elements – in the opposite order to that in which you prepared them – will help you to start the meeting in a way that’s both direct and respectful:


 “Sophie, I’m conscious I have some stuff to say in this meeting which you may not like hearing; but I feel the only feedback worth giving is honest feedback – and also that as long as I make sure this meeting is 100% about constructing for the future and not about dumping on you for the past we should both get through it without too much pain.

“I’ve thought about what I’m happy with in the way we work together; and also about the things I’d like you to do differently in the future – and why.  I’ve put together my thoughts for turning things round to ensure your appraisal in 6 months’ time is universally positive.  And obviously I want to hear your thoughts and ideas on the subject.

“I want to leave today having achieved two things: one, for us to have agreed together on a concrete plan for ensuring we’re both much happier with the way things are going in 6 months’ time; and two, for you then to assure me that you’re ready and motivated to execute that plan to the best of your ability.

“How do those sound to you as goals for the meeting?”






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