Delivering critical feedback to your people

By Dr Chak-fu Lam

Dr Chak-fu Lam, Associate Professor in the Department of Management, discusses how managers can best negotiate a tricky issue – giving critical feedback. Six steps deliver a difficult conversation directly and respectfully at the same time. This article is based on "Say It as It Is: Consequences of Voice Directness, Voice Politeness, and Voicer Credibility on Voice Endorsement," by Lam, Chak Fu; Lee, Cynthia; and Sui, Yang, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in May 2019.

Associates often make mistakes. Some are minute and can be easily fixed. Others deserve a critical conversation.

Imagine one of your associates has an issue of body odour (yes, it’s more common than you think!): people struggle to be around this person and eventually they come to you and want you to talk to the person about the smell. After verifying that this is indeed an issue, you realise that you have to deal with it because the smell is affecting the performance of those who sit near this person.

I remember posing this question to a class in which one of the students served in the US military as a lieutenant. We were all curious about what he would say. His answer:

"You stink. Go take a shower."

It may seem harsh, but if you deliver this sentence in a monotonous, matter-of-fact tone, it’s surprisingly effective.

Ultimately, the goal of the conversation is clear: change an unwanted behaviour.

Associates often make mistakes; some are minute and can be easily fixed; others deserve a critical conversation. While the body odour issue may seem extreme and unlikely, consider other day to day issues like being late for work, poor performance, lack of initiative, or other critical issues that managers face on a daily basis but are often too afraid to speak about. There are a variety of labels given to this process: developmental conversation, developmental feedback, critical conversation, critical feedback, etc. Ultimately, the goal of the conversation is clear: change an unwanted behaviour.

Three things to avoid

People are afraid to provide negative feedback for fear of upsetting the other party.

At work, managers typically make three mistakes when they engage in this type of conversation. The first is called the MUM effect: people are afraid to provide negative feedback for fear of upsetting the other party. This is especially true in a collectivistic culture where people are concerned about maintaining social harmony and not willing to offend others. If handled improperly, relationships can be strained by this type of conversation, and many managers are too afraid to deliver negative feedback. I agree that caring about your associates’ feeling and "face" is very important; unfortunately, most managers choose to avoid the situation altogether, and never get to address the issue until it becomes out of hand.

Say something positive, deliver the "blow", then end with something positive. What managers don’t realise is that this type of message becomes ambiguous.

A second mistake that managers often make is to use the sandwich technique: say something positive about the associate (you are doing great), deliver the "blow" (but…), then end with something positive again (if you take care of this, everything will be great). Allegedly, this strategy preserves the face and feeling of the associates. What managers don’t realise is that this type of message becomes ambiguous: employees would ask themselves, "Am I good?" "Do I need to improve?" This leaves the associate confused about whether he or she has to improve, or he or she is actually doing ok.

Managers want to appear caring and so they start the conversation by asking questions.

A third mistake that managers make when delivering this type of conversation is that they want to appear caring and so they start the conversation by asking questions (which, I must emphasise, is a very important skill to develop as a leader): "Do you feel that people are avoiding you?" "What do you think about your performance?" Asking questions and listening are two very important skills to learn as a manager, but it’s not so effective in this type of situation because you are no longer in control of the conversation. What if the associate replies "I think I am doing great" when, in fact, he or she is doing poorly? What is your follow-up conversation? Rather than you being firmly in control of driving the conversation, as any good manager should be, you allow your associates to lead the conversation. Often times, managers fail to deliver their message.

Focus feedback on the task not the person

My research, which focuses on how associates express ideas and suggestions to their manager, speaks to this issue. Specifically, in three studies conducted both in the field with surveys and in the lab with experiments, my colleagues and I found that being direct about change-oriented suggestions is associated with more frequent managerial endorsement when voicers are credible or respectful. In a similar vein, studies by Kluger and DeNisi (1996) suggest that feedback tends to improve performance as long as it is focused on the task and not the person. Phrases like "How many times have I told you…" "Why are you so stupid?" or "You don’t know what you are doing" can never be taken back; the moment associates hear these words, their focus is not on the content of the conversation anymore but on their own self: am I a terrible person? Why is my boss angry with me? What can I do to make the boss feel better?

Six steps to deliver a difficult conversation

So, how do you actually deliver a difficult conversation? Here are the six steps that are consistent with our discussion:

Saving face and being respectful are important.

1. Choose a private setting. It’s very important that when you deliver the conversation, you do so behind closed doors with only the relevant parties (usually you and your associate; but sometimes you may need a third-party to ensure your safety and/or to have a witness that the conversation did occur). Saving face and being respectful are important; nobody wants others to know that they have made a critical error. By the same token, avoid talking about the conversation in front of other subordinates.

Be as objective as possible.

2. Begin the conversation by describing the problem. The key here is to be as objective as possible. Back to our body odour example, this is nothing more than a one-phrase statement: "I hate to say this, but when I walk pass you, I notice issues with your body odour." Or, consider if you are delivering a conversation about lack of performance. All you have to communicate is to give examples of poor performance ("Your sales target for last year is X%, but you only reached X-10%.")

Describing an issue objectively shows that you are unbiased; you are focused on improving the situation rather than attacking the associate. This is important, as studies show that when a suggestion is perceived to be made out of prosocial motives, people are more likely to pay attention to your suggestion. By describing an issue in an objective manner, you show that you are not engaging in the conversation with an agenda in mind, but are truly focused on solving a serious problem.

Convey a signal that you are focusing on the task not the person.

3. Also, note your body language here. In business schools, we often ask people to communicate with charisma and enthusiasm. Not when you’re delivering critical conversation. Your associate is able to detect any signs of blame from you, and your body language will make a difference here. Use monotone, conveying a signal that you are not focusing on him or her as a person but on the task. This will signal to the associate that you are communicating this issue out of the desire to help him or her improve a situation.

Describe the consequences of the problem.

4. Describe the consequences of the problem. This is a step that a lot of managers miss: they just assume that by describing an issue, the associate will know the negative consequences of their behaviour. In reality, they often don’t! So describe the effect objectively. For example, for the body odour challenge, a manager may say the following: "This affects those around you because they get distracted. In fact, I get distracted while talking to you." For the sales performance challenge, a manager may say: "As a result, we are not able to reach our collective goals."

Here, a really effective strategy is to say how this problem affects the associate himself or herself: "This hurts you eventually because people do not want to interact with you," "Unfortunately, this will hurt the store sales in general and may result in zero bonus this year." Ideally, you want to increase the expectancy value of changing the unwanted behaviour: if the unwanted behaviour does not entail any negative consequences for the associate, there will be little motivation for the associates to change it.

Offering solutions enhances the sense that one is capable of addressing the issue.

5. Offer solutions. Anyone in the world knows how to criticise someone for the problems they create; not many know how to solve those problems. Ultimately, your goal is for the associates to improve and become better. Therefore, offering possible solutions is critical: "You may consider taking a shower in the morning," "Have you tried using this deodorant brand?" "To improve your sales, try counting the number of ‘cold’ calls you have to make backward in order to reach your sales target." Offering solutions not only signals that you care, but also enhances the associates’ sense of efficacy – or feeling that one is capable – of addressing the issue.

Enhancing a sense of accountability has been shown to improve performance.

6. Follow-up with a quick email. Write it down in plain simple language so that the associate knows that this is a serious issue and that he or she must address this issue; you are not going to let him or her off the hook. You will follow-up this issue in the near future. This enhances a sense of accountability, which has been shown to improve performance.

It’s not easy to communicate directly and respectfully at the same time. With practice, however, any manager can deliver this type of conversation, with ease.

Dr Chak-fu Lam
Associate Professor
Department of Management