Delivering constructive feedback is hard — it’s natural to worry about the other person’s feelings, damaging your relationship, awkward silences, or worse, the discussion escalating into conflict. For these reasons, many people hold off on having difficult conversations, and when they do eventually have them, the message often isn’t as clear as it could be. This results in the feedback failing to have the intended impact. A valuable principle when delivering feedback is to do so sooner than you would prefer, and more directly than you would naturally. When you’re going against the grain in this way, it’s a good idea to talk through the feedback beforehand with a trusted peer.
Sooner than you would prefer
When we anticipate that an experience will be uncomfortable, the natural temptation is to delay it in order to avoid it. Humans are great storytellers, and we often use stories to rationalise our choices. For example, “we had deployment issues with this project, but you know, there were some unforeseen things that came up — I will see how the next one goes, then I’ll speak to them about this”. Or, “I was going to bring this up in our 1–1, but then we got talking about something else, and I didn’t have the chance. It’s okay, I’ll bring it up next week”. Narratives like these are problematic. The more time between an action, and the feedback on that action, the less effective the feedback. Memories fade, details are lost, and new things come up in the meantime. There’s a good chance that if we don’t bring it up now, then we never will, or when we eventually do, things will have moved on and the feedback won’t be as relevant. As leaders, we need to recognise these stories for what they are, and lean into the discomfort of discussing the feedback sooner than we would prefer.
More directly than you would naturally
When we’re uncomfortable in a conversation, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves talking around the subject rather than addressing it head-on. We use more words than we need to, and we add more qualifiers (“maybe”, “try”, “possibly”) to hedge our statements. This leads to a couple of problems. First of all, it makes the point we’re trying to make less clear — more words to parse means there’s more room for misunderstanding. It also softens the tone of the delivery, so it can mislead the other person about the urgency or importance of the feedback. To defend against this wordiness, we need to make a special effort to communicate in simpler, more direct terms than we would normally.
Talk it through beforehand
Before going into a feedback conversation, I have found it helpful to talk it through with a trusted peer. Doing this allows you to practice both articulating what you have observed, and communicating your message in simple, direct terms. It helps you verify that your choice of words conveys what you intend.
Getting an outside perspective can also help to ensure that the feedback is fair. If the only input for the feedback is your own perspective, you are more susceptible to bias, looking only for evidence that reaffirms your opinion, and making assumptions that might not hold true. Speaking to someone who doesn’t have the same context forces you to justify your position. This person can play devil’s advocate by asking questions like “have you ever talked to this person about your expectations for doing X?”, or “is this the first time this person has taken on this task? How would you expect them to know how to do the right thing?”. Talking through this out loud helps you to detach, and ensure your feedback is proportionate.
Giving feedback can be uncomfortable, but it’s also necessary, and an important part of being a leader. By focusing on delivering an impactful, timely message rather than on our own discomfort we can increase our chances of success.
Thanks to Melanie Harries for reading drafts of this.