Most of us wait to give negative feedback until it’s the right time, aka the recipient won’t get upset. Or we wait, hoping the situation will resolve itself. If something is really an issue, the likelihood of either happening is pretty slim. The right time to give feedback is shortly after something happens. I’ll offer up the 24-guideline and the one-week rule. Wait 24-hours to give feedback, if you’re upset. But don’t wait longer than a week.
The purpose of giving positive or negative feedback (I like the word upgrade feedback) is to motivate someone to replicate or change a behavior. That’s it. Feedback is supposed to be helpful. If you wait longer than a week to give either positive or upgrade feedback, the person isn’t likely to remember the situation you’re referencing, and the purpose of giving feedback – to change or replicate a behavior – will be lost.
Here are four practices to make negative (upgrade) feedback conversations shorter, less painful, and more useful:
Giving feedback practice one: Agree to give and receive feedback at the onset of relationships. Do this with everyone you work with – direct supervisors, direct reports, peers, internal and external customers, and vendors.
Giving feedback practice two: Prepare for feedback conversations by writing down what you plan to say and then delivering the feedback to a neutral person. Ask that person to tell you what they heard and what their expectations would be, based on what you said. Confide in someone either at your level or above at work or someone outside of work, to keep the gossip to a minimum. Ask for confidentiality.
Giving feedback practice three: Tell a neutral person about your situation, and ask what they would say to address the situation. Everyone but you will do a better job at giving feedback. Feedback conversations become hard when we’re emotionally involved. The guy working at the 7-11 will do a better job than you. Seriously. It’s our emotions and concern about the other person’s reaction that makes feedback conversations challenging.
Giving feedback practice four: Agree to do a weekly debrief with the people you work closely with, and follow-through. Answer the questions – what went well this week from a work perspective and what would we do differently if we could? Answer the same questions about your working relationship. Giving feedback about your relationship will be hard at first. It will be easier the more you do it. Be sure to say “thank you” for the feedback, regardless of what you really want to say. One of the reasons giving negative feedback is so hard is we wait too long. Shorter, more frequent conversations are better than long, infrequent discussions.
Giving negative feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Follow the suggestions above and remind yourself that the purpose of giving feedback is to be helpful. If you were doing the wrong work, you’d want to know. And others do too.
At some point in our career, most of us have taken a class that told us to give feedback that sounds like, “I felt ___________ when you ___________.” I couldn’t disagree more.
Most people get defensive when they receive negative feedback. Becoming defensive is a normal and natural response to upgrade (my word for negative) feedback. It’s the ego’s way of protecting us. Defensiveness kicks in when the recipient feels judged, and it’s difficult to listen when we’re defensive.
If you say to someone, “I felt embarrassed when you yelled at me in front of the team,” defensiveness kicks in at the word “embarrassed”. The recipient is now defensive (and is likely no longer listening) but does not yet know what they did to upset the person. Instead, lead with the facts, so when the listener becomes defensive, at least they know what they did.
If you say, “You yelled at me in front of the team. That was embarrassing,” at least when the defensiveness kicks in, the listener knows what they did that was upsetting. Then there is a chance that after processing the feedback, the person will change their behavior.
Yes to this:
“I need more regular feedback to stay on track with projects. Can we touch base weekly for ten minutes?”
No to this:
“You don’t make time for me. “I need more regular feedback to stay on track with projects.”
Lead with the facts. Tell the person what happened. Follow with why that matters. What happened, what’s the impact.
Factual, objective feedback may lead to change. Judgments lead to upset and damaged relationships.
Many people struggle to say no. As a result, when someone has a request that we can’t or don’t want to meet, we often say nothing. We simply don’t respond. Or we put the person off telling them we’ll get back to them. Then people wonder. “Did they get my request? Should I send the request again? Will I look bad if I ask again? How many times should I ask before I just let the request go?”
Saying no is better than saying nothing. No gives people closure. Silence leaves people in limbo wondering what they should do next.
Saying no is hard. We don’t want to disappoint or let people down. And yet, you can’t say yes to everything. You can say no and still sound like a responsible, easy-to-work-with, accommodating professional.
Here are ways to say no:
Thank the person for asking. “Thank you for asking me.”
Saying “thank you” acknowledges the other person and buys you time to think about their request.
Tell the person you need some time to think about their request. Ask, “Can I have a few days to think about it? I’ll get back to you by Friday.”
You don’t need to reply in the moment. I often regret things I agree to without thinking through the request thoroughly.
Consider what you really want and are willing to do. It’s much worse to over commit and under deliver than to simply say no or renegotiate requests.
Get back to the person in a timely way (when you said you would) and tell them what you’re willing to do.
How to Say No Option One: Simply say no.
Example: “I really appreciate you asking me to write the proposal for the __________ RFP. I’m not able to do that. Can I recommend someone else who has the expertise and time to do a great job?”
Don’t give a bunch of reasons for saying no. People aren’t interested in why we can or can’t do something; they just want to know if we will do it.
How to Say No Option Two: Agree and negotiate the time frame.
Example: “I’d be happy to do that. I can’t do it before the last week of the month. Would that work for you?” If the answer is no, negotiate further. Ask, “When do you really need it? I can certainly do pieces by then, but not the whole thing. Given that I can’t meet your timeline, who else can work on this in tandem or instead of me?”
How to Say No Option Three: Say no to the request but say what you can do.
Example: “I can’t do _______. But I can do ________. How would that work?”
A review of how to say no:
Acknowledge the request by getting back to the requestor within 24 hours.
Give yourself time to think about and respond to requests.
Negotiate requests to your and the requestor’s satisfaction.
Agree on what you can and are willing to do.
Keep your commitments.
Saying no is always hard. But it’s always better to say no than to ignore requests, or to say yes and do nothing.
It’s not unusual to wait too long to give feedback. Giving feedback often feels awkward and uncomfortable. What happens if the person cries, or gives us the cold shoulder, or worse, quits?
Working virtually over the past few years has exacerbated the waiting. Many managers who were accustomed to giving feedback in person hesitated to have hard conversations over the phone or via video.
Perhaps you waited so long to give feedback, you feel like you can’t.
It’s never too late. You just need to set the expectation that you’re going to give feedback and why.
One of the keys to being (more) comfortable giving feedback is to know that most people genuinely want to know how they’re doing. Working in the dark is frustrating. Not knowing the behaviors that impact us and our opportunities is also frustrating. Working on a project for months only to find out the work we did wasn’t what the other person wanted is ultimately frustrating.
Most people genuinely want feedback. They may struggle to hear feedback, they may get defensive, they may not take responsibility, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to know.
If you want to give feedback but feel like you waited too long, say so. The conversation could sound like this:
Manager to direct report: “I realized that I haven’t been giving you enough feedback. I’d like to start doing a semi-monthly debrief, not because anything is wrong or has changed. I want you to learn and grow as a result of working with me, and you won’t if I’m not providing regular feedback”
Peer to peer: “I need to talk with you about something and I’ve realized that I’ve waited too long. As a result, I’m feeling awkward and hesitant. Is it ok if I speak freely?”
Talking with someone more senior than yourself: “I want to talk with you about something I’ve been seeing for a while. I should have said something sooner. I’m sorry I didn’t. Can I talk with you about it now?”
It’s ok if you waited too long. It’s ok not to say things perfectly. Authenticity goes a long way. Be real. If you’re nervous, say so. If you’re wondering if it’s ok to speak up, say so. If you waited too long, say so. Relationships are built on trust, and authenticity builds trust. The time to start is now.
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