Need to give negative feedback? Practice out loud. The words you say in your head while driving to work will not be what comes out of your mouth when you give the actual feedback. Ask a friend, family member, or even your pet (aka someone you don’t work with) to listen to you deliver the feedback. If people outside of your industry and organization understand the feedback, the feedback recipient will be clear, too.
Giving feedback is stressful for both the person giving the feedback and the feedback recipient. The best way to manage the stress of giving feedback is to be prepared.
Here are three ways to prepare for difficult feedback conversations:
Write out the feedback, save your notes, and walk away. Read your notes later and ask yourself, “Have I been clear?” Then see if you can cut the notes in half. Shorter feedback is better.
Practice out loud. Use our 8- step Feedback Formula as a guide. The Formula will ensure you give clear, specific, and succinct feedback without emotion.
Bring type-written notes to your feedback conversations. When the feedback recipient becomes defensive (and they will) or you become flustered (and you might), your notes will help you keep the conversation on track.
During every feedback training I teach, I am asked how to reduce feedback recipient’s defensiveness. Defensiveness is a normal, healthy response to feedback. When you give someone negative feedback, you (subtly) tell the person they did something wrong. No one wants to hear that, so the brain goes on the defensive. It’s a normal survival mechanism. Instead of avoiding and dreading defensiveness during feedback conversations, prepare for it. And the best way to prepare is to practice what you want to say out loud. Speaking a message is not the same as practicing the conversation silently in your head. Speaking out loud is more stressful and takes more time. So, if a conversation is particularly difficult or awkward, practice out loud!
I’d like to give a huge shout out to Angela Fusaro of Physician 360 for sharing this video with us. Angela practiced my eight-step Feedback Formula on her dog, Thor. I thought it was so funny and thought you would, too.
1. Introduce the conversation so feedback recipients know what to expect.
2. Share your motive for speaking so both the feedback provider and the recipient feel as comfortable as possible.
3. Describe the observed behavior so the recipient can picture a specific, recent example of what you’re referring to. The more specific you are, the less defensive he will be, and the more likely he’ll be to hear you and take corrective action.
4. Sharing the impact or result describes the consequences of the behavior. It’s what happened as a result of the person’s actions.
5. Having some dialogue gives both people a chance to speak and ensures that the conversation is not one-sided. Many feedback conversations are not conversations at all; they’re monologues. One person talks and the other person pretends to listen, while thinking what an idiot you are. Good feedback conversations are dialogues during which the recipient can ask questions, share his point of view, and explore next steps.
6. Make a suggestion or request so the recipient has another way to approach the situation or task in the future. Most feedback conversations tell the person what he did wrong and the impact of the behavior; only rarely do they offer an alternative. Give people the benefit of the doubt. If people knew a better way to do something, they would do it another way.
7. Building an agreement on next steps ensures there is a plan for what the person will do going forward. Too many feedback conversations do not result in behavior change. Agreeing on next steps creates accountability.
8. Say “Thank you” to create closure and to express appreciation for the recipient’s willingness to have a difficult conversation.
If you’re giving more than one piece of feedback during a conversation, address each issue individually. For example, if you need to tell someone that she needs to arrive on time and also check her work for errors, first go through the eight steps in the formula to address lateness. When you’ve discussed an agreement of next steps about being on time, go back to step one and address the errors. But talk about one issue at a time so the person clearly understands what she’s supposed to do.
Here’s how a conversation could sound, using the eight-step Feedback Formula:
Step One: Introduce the conversation.
“John, I need to talk with you.”
Step Two: Share your motive for speaking.
“This is a little awkward, and it may be uncomfortable. I want you to know that while I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, I’m doing it because I care about you and I want you to be successful.”
Just because you’re direct doesn’t mean you’re not empathetic. But remember, these are my words. You’ll need to find your own words that you feel comfortable using to deliver such a difficult message.
Step Three: Describe the observed behavior.
“John, I’ve noticed that you have an odor.”
Step Four: Share the impact or result of the behavior.
“I know this is a very awkward subject (more empathy). We work in a small space. I don’t want others to avoid working with you or say negative things about you. And as awkward as this is, I would rather you hear this from me than from someone else. Sometimes health conditions can cause certain odors, as can eating certain foods.”
Step Five: Have some dialogue. Ask the recipient for his perception of the situation.
“What are your thoughts?”
Give John time to say whatever he wishes to say.
Step Six: Make a suggestion or request for what to do next time.
“Again, I’m really sorry to have to tell you this. Please make sure you shower every day before coming to work and wash your clothes regularly. And please tell me if there’s something else you’d like me to know.”
Because of the awkwardness of this subject, skip step seven, and go to step eight.
“Thank you for being willing to have this conversation with me.”
You Can Say More Than You Think You Can
You might be gasping, thinking there is no way you could ever tell someone he smells. It’s definitely an awkward conversation, one I hope you never have to have. I used one of the most difficult things you will ever have to say to demonstrate that even the most awkward feedback can be delivered empathetically and quickly.
The short and concise body-odor conversation is a lot less uncomfortable for the recipient than the drawn-out, evasive first version. Just think, would you rather listen to someone tell you that you smell for two minutes or for twenty?
You may also think, “I shouldn’t have to tell someone to take a shower and wash their clothes.” That’s true, you shouldn’t. But if you’re working with someone who doesn’t do these things, clearly someone needs to tell him. Remember, other people are not you and don’t do things the way you do, even when those things appear to be no-brainer basics.
Lastly, you may think that telling someone to shower and wash his clothes is insulting and demeaning. It’s true: No matter how you spin it, there’s nothing nice about this message. But which is worse, having your coworkers ask for different desks and be unwilling to work with you, or having someone who has your best interests at heart tell you privately to clean it up—quite literally? When you tell people the truth, you do them a favor.
Here’s another example: A few years ago I had a coworker who was a lingerer. Lisa would hover outside my office until she saw an opportunity to interrupt. She then walked in uninvited and started talking. I was still mid-thought about whatever I’d been working on and wasn’t ready to listen. After a few sentences, I would interrupt Lisa, saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Will you please start over?”
Embarrassing as it sounds, this went on for more than a year. I wanted to be seen as accessible and open, yet this “lingering” method of interrupting was driving me crazy. And it was a waste of both of our time. After many months of frustration, I decided to use the eight-step Formula.
Step One: Introduce the conversation.
“Lisa, I want to talk about something I’ve noticed.”
Step Two: Share your motive for speaking.
“I probably should have said something a long time ago. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Step Three: Describe the observed behavior.
“I’ve noticed that when you want to talk to me you stand at my door, waiting for a good time to interrupt. When you come into my office, you’re often in the middle of a thought or problem that you’ve probably been thinking about for a while.”
Steps Four and Six: Share the impact or result of the behavior and make a suggestion or request for what to do next time.
“Because I’m in the middle of something completely different, it takes me a few seconds to catch up. By the time I have, I’ve missed key points about your question and I have to ask you to start over. This isn’t a good use of either of our time.
“Here is my request: When I’m in my office working and you need something, knock and ask if it’s a good time. If it is, I’ll say yes. Give me a few seconds to finish whatever I’m working on, so I’m focused on you when we start talking. I’ll tell you when I’m ready. Then start at the beginning, giving me a little background, so I have some context. And if it isn’t a good time for me, I’ll tell you that and come find you as soon as I can.”
Step Five: Have some dialogue. Allow the recipient to say whatever she needs to say.
“What do you think?”
Step Seven: Agree on next steps.
“Okay, so next time you want to talk with me, you’re going to tap on the door and ask if it’s a good time to talk. If it’s not, I’ll tell you that and come find you as soon as I can. If it is a good time, you’re going to give me a second to finish whatever I’m working on and give me some background about the issue at hand. Does that work for you?”
We have just managed “the lingerer”—a challenge you probably have, unless you work from home or in a closet.
You may have noticed that I changed the order of the Feedback Formula during this conversation. It’s not the order of the conversation that’s important. It’s that you provide specific feedback, offer alternative actions, and have some dialogue before the conversation ends.
Summary: Good Feedback Is Specific, Succinct, and Direct.
Provided you have a trusting relationship with someone and have secured permission to give feedback, there is very little you can’t say in two minutes or less. The shorter and more direct the message, the easier it is to hear and act upon. Follow the eight-step Feedback Formula. Be empathetic and direct. Cite specific examples. Give the other person a chance to talk. Come to agreement about next steps. Remember, you do people a favor by being honest with them. People may not like what you have to say, but they will invariably thank you for being candid.
Most of us grapple with whether or not we should give feedback when someone else does or says something frustrating.
Here are a few criteria to help you decide whether or not you should give feedback or say nothing:
Do you have a relationship with the person? Do you know each other well enough to share your opinion? Aka, have you earned the right?
Has the other person requested your opinion? Unsolicited feedback often goes on deaf ears.
If the other person has not requested your opinion, does he appear open to hearing feedback?
Are you trying to make a difference for the other person or just make him look or feel badly?
Do you want to strengthen the relationship?
Before you give feedback, do something I call, ‘check your motives at the door.’ If your motives are pure – you want to strengthen the person or the relationship, and you have a good enough relationship that you’ve earned the right to speak up — then do it.
People are more open to feedback when they trust our motives. If we have a good relationship with the person and he knows we’re speaking up to make a difference for him or for the relationship, you’ll be able to say way more than if your motives are questionable – aka you want to be right.
You will be passed over for jobs, projects, and second dates and never know why. Being passed over isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not knowing why is problematic. If you don’t know why you’re being passed over, how can you be prepared for next time?
Organizations are political. People talk. You’ve undoubtedly already experienced this.
If you want to manage your professional reputation, one thing you must know is who talks about you and what they say. How decisions get made in organizations isn’t always obvious. There are the obvious channels of decision making, like your boss and your boss’s boss. But there are also the people who talk to your boss and boss’s boss and have an opinion about you, who you may not be aware of.
Everyone in an organization has people they trust, who they listen to and confide in. Who those trusted people are isn’t always obvious. When you’re being considered for a new position or project, the decision makers will invariably ask others for their opinion. Knowing who does and doesn’t support you in a future role is essential to managing your professional reputation and career.
I don’t want you to be nervous, paranoid, or suspicious at work. I do want you to be savvy, smart, and aware.
It’s not difficult to find out who can impact your professional reputation at work, you just need to ask the people who know. Start with your boss. S/he likely knows and will tell you, if you ask.
To ensure you know who can impact your professional reputation, tell your boss:
“I really enjoy working here. I enjoy the people, the work and our industry. I’m committed to growing my career with this organization.”
Who in the organization should I have a good relationship with?
Who/what departments should I be working closely with?
Who impacts my professional reputation and the opportunities I have?
What skills do I have that the organization values most?
What contributions have I made that the organization values most?
What mistakes have I made from which I need to recover?
Your manager doesn’t walk around thinking about the answers to these questions. If you want thoughtful answers, set a time to meet with your boss, tell him/her the purpose of the meeting – to get feedback on your professional reputation so you can adeptly manage your career – and send the questions in advance, giving your boss time to prepare for the meeting. You will get more thoughtful and complete answers if your boss has two weeks to think about the questions and ask others for input.
Don’t be caught off guard by a less-than-stellar professional reputation. Take control of your reputation and career. Ask more. Assume less.
Write a comment about this week’s blog and we’ll enter your organization to win 50 professional reputation bookmarks!
Last week I was talking with a friend who works for a large investment bank. He said, “I don’t believe in the premise of your book. There is no place for negative feedback in the workplace. It’s just not possible.” And I’m seeing firsthand how hard it is for people to receive negative feedback. All kinds of people – sensitive people and less sensitive people, Type A and laid back types. No one wants to hear she made a mistake, could have done something better, or any other type of negative feedback. It’s just too hard.
We need to be able to tell people what they can do better. And the truth, is, while people may not want to hear negative feedback, most people do want to know what they can do to improve their performance and get ahead, hence the quandary. Give negative feedback and evoke others’ defensiveness or say nothing and put up with whatever isn’t working? I, of course, would prefer that you give the feedback, believing that it empowers people to make better personal and professional choices. The question is how?
Here are six steps to make giving negative feedback possible:
Set the expectation at the onset of working relationships that you will give and receive balanced (positive and negative) feedback regularly. If you’ve worked with people for years and have not set this expectation, it’s not too late. Simply say, “I realized we don’t give each other a lot of feedback. In the spirit of continuous improvement, I’d like to implement a weekly debrief during which we talk about what’s working and not working. We’ll give each other feedback during the meetings.”
Assess candidate’s openness to feedback when you interview, and don’t hire people who don’t accept negative feedback. We do practical interviews at Candid Culture. We give candidates a chance to do some of the work they’ll be doing on the job and tell candidates what they can do to improve, during the interview. Then we see how they accept our feedback. We also ask interview questions that help elucidate whether or not candidates are open to feedback and we ask candidates’ references how well the person accepts negative feedback.
Observe performance regularly and provide balanced feedback from the start. Don’t wait until a problem occurs or until you have time to give feedback. Begin the practice of meeting weekly to review and discuss work, setting the precedent that this is the way you do business.
Provide positive feedback regularly so people know the good stuff and aren’t solely focused on the negative feedback they receive.
Ask for and be open to feedback. When you demonstrate being open to feedback, you earn the right to give feedback.
Lastly, don’t underestimate how hard it is to hear negative feedback. When some people receive negative feedback, they begin to question themselves, their skills, and their value. So tread lightly. Pick your battles. Address only what you really need to and say things gingerly, remembering that you’re talking to a sensitive person, no matter how tough he may seem.
Many of us are hesitant to give peer feedback. We worry that giving peer feedback will damage our relationships. We wonder if we have the right and if it’s our place to give peer feedback. And we are concerned about what the consequences of giving peer feedback will be.
Giving peer feedback isn’t so different from giving feedback to a friend or even a direct report. While you have an implicit ‘right’ to give a direct report feedback, doing so without building trust will ensure your feedback falls flat.
People respond to feedback in predictable ways. Most people get upset and defend themselves. This is normal and natural. Negative feedback conflicts with our desire to be thought well of, which all people (despite what they might say) want. People are more open and less defensive when they trust the source of the feedback and trust the sources’ motives. Follow these practices when giving peer feedback and your feedback will hopefully be well received.
Think about why you want to give feedback. Really think about this. Is your desire to help the person change a behavior, or are you just being judgmental? If your intention isn’t to help someone replicate or change a behavior, say nothing. It’s not feedback you’re planning to give, it’s only your opinion you want to disseminate. One of my friends recently told me she felt my son’s name was waspy. Her comment wasn’t feedback as there was nothing I could do with the information. She simply gave me her judgmental opinion, which annoyed me.
Also consider why you want to give feedback. Do you simply want something done your way, or do you feel strongly that what the person is doing is having a negative impact on him/her or the organization? I worked with a business leader who red lined every document his staff created. He didn’t only change language that was wrong, he edited documents so they were written more akin to his writing style. This made his staff feel that they couldn’t do anything right and it wouldn’t matter what they produced, he’d revise even the most ‘perfect’ work. So they stopped trying. Evaluate your true motive. Just because something wasn’t done your way, doesn’t mean it wasn’t done well.
Provided your motives are pure – you’re trying to make a difference for someone and his/her behavior is causing real challenges, it’s ok to speak up. Be sure you have the relationship to give peer feedback. Does the person know you have his/her back? If you speak up, will s/he trust it’s because you care about her or the organization, versus you just want to express your opinion and be right.
Provided you are giving feedback to alter a behavior and you have the relationship to give feedback, it’s important that you ask for permission. A peer relationship is a lateral one. You each have the same ‘power’ (at least by title) in the organization, thus you don’t intrinsically have the ‘right’ to give feedback. You earn the right to give feedback by asking for permission and being willing to hear, “No, thank you.”
Asking for permission to give feedback might sound something like, “I’ve noticed a few things that I think are making ________ project harder than it has to be. Would you be willing to talk with me about it?”
Or, “Our weekly team meetings are tough. It’s a challenging group. I have a couple of ideas that might make the meetings easier to run. Would you be interested in talking about them?”
Or, “I have something I want to share with you. I feel awkward bringing this up because we’re peers and I’m not sure it’s my place to do so. But I care about you and want you to be successful. Would it be ok if I shared? Feel free, of course, to say no.”
Lastly, don’t worry about giving peer feedback perfectly. You might follow our feedback formula to a tee. You might not. There is no one right way to give feedback. Speak from the heart. If you’re nervous to have a conversation, say so. If you’re not sure it’s your place to give a piece of feedback, say so. If you’re worried you won’t deliver the feedback well, say that. Saying how you really feel, being human and vulnerable builds trust, relationships, and credibility. People want to work with other real people, and real people have concerns. It’s ok to share them.
Giving peer feedback doesn’t have to be hard. Evaluate your motives. Ensure that what you plan to share is really feedback versus merely your opinion. Build trust, ask for permission, and speak from the heart. If you make a mess, you can always clean it up. Simply repeat the steps by saying something like, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I hope it’s ok I said something. I really want this project to go well for both you and the team. How could I have done that better for next time?”
There are two purposes of giving feedback and only two purposes – to encourage people to either replicate or change a behavior. Providing input for any other reason doesn’t actually qualify as feedback and only serves to damage relationships.
Sometimes we provide input because we’re frustrated or simply don’t like someone. Consider the purpose of your comments before you make them. If your intentions are pure – to help someone replicate or alter a behavior, then ask for permission and give feedback once given the green light. If you’re ‘just talking’ to talk or vent, say nothing.
Giving feedback criteria one: You have the relationship to do so. You’ve built trust. The recipient will know your motives are pure – to add value and help.
Giving feedback criteria two: You’ve asked for permission to give feedback. Even if your title grants you the permission to give feedback, asking if the person is open to the feedback can increase receptivity.
Giving feedback criteria three: You’re not upset. Wait to give feedback until you’re calm, but don’t wait longer than a week (max two).
Giving feedback criteria four: Four months haven’t passed since the incident happened that you want to address. If the purpose of feedback is to encourage someone to replicate or change a behavior, the feedback needs to be given shortly after the event occurred. If you wait, the feedback is unhelpful and creates suspicion of other things you haven’t said.
Giving feedback criteria five: You have a specific example to provide. No example, no feedback. Feedback is supposed to be helpful. Telling someone they’re “doing a great job” is nice to hear but isn’t specific enough to be helpful or sincere. Likewise, telling someone their work isn’t “detailed oriented,” isn’t helpful without a specific example or two.
Evaluate your motives before you speak. Are you attempting to encourage someone to alter or replicate a behavior, or are you just sharing your unsolicited opinion? Give feedback for the right reasons, and retain your relationships.
We know impressions are made quickly and are hard to change. But it’s not impossible to repair your reputation. If you want to change how people see you, I’d suggest being very overt about the changes you’ve made. Don’t simply alter your behavior and wait for people to notice. They likely won’t.
Once people have formed an opinion about you, that’s often their opinion for as long as they know you. For example, if you have a tendency to be late, even if you periodically show up on time, your friends and coworkers will think of you as the person who is always late. If you work with someone who tends to miss deadlines, even if she periodically turns work in on time, you’ll think of her as someone who misses deadlines.
Once people make a decision about us, that’s often how they’ll see us for the duration our relationship. So if you want to repair your reputation, you’re going to have to do it overtly. Making changes and hoping people notice, won’t produce the desired result.
Here Are Eight Steps to Repair Your Reputation:
Ask people who can impact your reputation and whose judgment you trust for feedback.
Work hard to manage yourself and not get defensive. Respond to all feedback, no matter how hard it is to hear or how invalid it may feel with, “Thank you for telling me that. I’m going to think about what you said. I may come back to talk more later.”
Once you’ve absorbed the feedback, decide what, if any, changes you will make.
Change your behavior for a period of weeks.
Return to the people who gave you feedback, tell them about the behavior changes you’ve made, and ask them to observe your behavior.
Tell the people who gave you feedback that you’ll ask them for feedback again in a few weeks, and you want to know what they see.
Return to the people who gave you feedback and ask what changes they have or haven’t noticed.
Repeat steps 3 through 7 at least quarterly. Everyone periodically does things that can damage their reputation.
Overtly pointing out the behavior changes you’ve made, asking people who are important to you to pay attention, and give you additional feedback, is key to altering your reputation. Most people working to change their reputation don’t do this. They make behavior changes and hope others notice. If you want to alter your reputation and how others see you, you need to do so overtly. Tell people the changes you’ve made; don’t make them guess. Ask people to observe your behavior, and then ask for more feedback. And no matter how hard the feedback is to hear, don’t get defensive. Becoming defensive will ensure you don’t get feedback the next time you ask.
Most of us avoid giving negative feedback because we don’t want to deal with the recipient’s defensive behavior. We’re waiting for what I call, The Freak Out. The Freak Out is the predictable response to negative feedback.
Everyone wants to be seen as competent and adding value. When we give people negative feedback, we call those two things into question and the brain instinctively reacts. It’s as if you were driving down the road and the person in front of you slammed on their brakes. As an act of survival, you’d hit your brakes too. Becoming defensive when receiving negative feedback is the same instinctual response. We (almost) can’t help ourselves. So rather than dread and avoid others’ defensive behavior, expect it and have a plan.
Here are five ways to deal with defensive behavior:
Plan your conversation by writing notes and bringing them to your conversation. I’m a fan of typed, double-spaced bullets that are easy to follow.
Practice what you want to say out loud. What you say in your head is often different than what comes out of your mouth.
Ask others for help. Change names and details to protect the feedback recipient and ask how someone else might deliver the feedback. Someone who is not emotionally involved will likely handle the conversation better.
When the feedback recipient exhibits defensive behavior, take a breath and pause. Remember that you expected this. Don’t retract what you’ve said. Just let the person speak.
Stay on track. Defensive behavior is designed to derail conversations. Keep the conversation focused on the feedback. Don’t become distracted.
What to say when people respond to feedback defensively:
Defensive behavior: “Why are you talking to me? I’m not the only one doing this.”
Appropriate response: “If others are doing this, be assured that I’m managing it. Right now we’re talking about you. I know this is difficult. Let’s stay focused.”
Appropriate response: “I know this is difficult. I’m asking you to __________. Please do that.”
Defensive behavior: “You don’t like me and you’re picking on me.”
Appropriate response: “I’m sorry you feel that way. The reason I’m asking you to ________ is _______.”
Defensive behavior: “I disagree.”
Appropriate response: “I know that we disagree. And I’m asking you to __________.”
The key is not to get baited by defensive behavior. This is why I suggest preparing and bringing notes. When I’m having a particularly difficult conversation and the other person becomes defensive, I often become flustered and either forget what I want to say or back pedal. Do neither. Expect defensive behavior. Don’t get distracted. Stay on track. You can handle anything someone says.
If you’ve gotten courageous and given someone negative feedback or questioned a decision or action, you probably didn’t get a shiny, happy reply in return. The normal and natural reaction to negative feedback or data is to defend ourselves. It’s human. Defending yourself when receiving negative feedback is an act of self-preservation, not unlike hitting your brakes when the person driving in front of you unexpectedly slams on their brakes.
The problem with reacting defensively (normally) to negative feedback is that it’s scary and off putting to others. As normal as a defensive reaction is to negative feedback, it makes others so uncomfortable that they’ll be hesitant to give you negative feedback again. And this lack of knowledge of what others really think is dangerous. Silence inhibits career growth and leads to bad business decisions. You want people to tell you the truth, as they see it. So you need to make it easy to speak freely.
If you want more of what others see as the truth, do the opposite of what people expect. Rather than defending or going silent, say “thank you.” “Thank you for telling me that. I’ll think about what you said and will likely come back to you to discuss further,” buys you time and puts the other person at ease.
Here are five ways to make it easier to say thank you for the feedback:
Only accept feedback when you’re ready to listen. You’re allowed to put people on ice and come back to them when you have time to talk. Bad days, when you have five minutes between meetings, or are about to leave for a vacation are not the times to accept negative information. Set up a time to talk, as soon as you have the bandwidth to listen.
Take breaks during hard conversations. You’re allowed to say, “I need a few minutes.” Go get coffee. Take a walk. Go outside. Regain your composure. Then continue the conversation.
Have feedback conversations when you’re rested and have eaten. Everything seems bigger and more difficult when we’re tired or hungry.
Accept that “thank you” isn’t the same as telling the other person she is right or that you agree. “Thank you” is a mere acknowledgment that you heard. It buys you time and gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and respond when you’re not emotional.
Don’t have conversations when you’re upset, and we often don’t know when we’re upset. Your emotions will run the show. Give yourself time to get through your emotional response, and then talk.
People are more hesitant than you think to tell you when they disagree. Make it easy to speak up. Do the opposite of what others expect. Say “thank you” rather than reacting, and you’ll get more data than you do now.