How to Effectively Deliver Critical Feedback

What’s one of the most common leadership mistakes? It is their failure to give critical feedback.

I still regret the way I led one employee, Kerry, in my first crack at leading a team. Kerry was underperforming, not following through on deliverables and missing key assignments. I sugar coated her feedback, ending each conversation with a positive — dulling the message. I thought if I gave her critical feedback she would not be able to bounce back from it and go out and deliver. I realize now, though, that by not sharing the real, honest and direct feedback with Kerry, I was robbing her of an opportunity to see the areas she was missing. I was robbing her of potential growth.

The more you hold back on sharing feedback, the more protection you give your employee, the more you rob them of their growth. Whether they acknowledge your honesty in the moment or 5 years from today, by sharing harsh truths, you allow someone else the opportunity to learn and to grow.

Because we often avoid giving critical feedback, we miss the mark when we do have to have a critical conversation.

How do you go about having a critical conversation so that the other person hears you? How do you set yourself up in the best position for holding a productive critical conversation?

Here are five steps to follow…

#1 Identify the purpose. Understand how to set up the conversation. It is crucial to get clear on what you are looking to get out of it — to give the other person clarity on what the meeting is about from the start — avoid blindsiding them.

#2 Focus on the facts. Learn how to pull back and focus on the facts of a given situation. What does it mean to focus on the facts? This is based strictly on the information we can gather through observation. Think about it as if a hidden camera captured the event. What does the camera see or hear? When we focus on the facts — we are better able to remove judgment from the situation — and focus clearly on what happened and how to resolve it.

#3 Own your reactions. Notice your reaction to situations and aim to create space between the incident and your response. Think about a recent situation where you were frustrated.

You open your email to find a client deliverable wrought with spelling and grammatical errors. When you read the email, you feel a piercing anger at your employee for sending something so incomplete to a client. Doesn’t he use spell check? Does he even care about the work?

These are your initial reactions to the situation.

We react because we have our own conscious and unconscious expectations of how the world is supposed to work. When we accept this, we own our feelings and remove the judgments. We allow ourselves to have a conversation that is solely based on the situation.

#4 Create an opening for possibility. Create the opening for a productive conversation by understanding the other person’s side of the story. What is her perspective?

The first three steps are your reflection of a situation. Now it’s time to include the other person in the conversation by asking them about the event. How did you see this event? What was the impact on you? What is possible for us in creating a better outcome next time around?

By opening the discussion, you allow the other person to be heard; you turn it from a one-sided conversation to a dialogue about what’s possible for both of you moving forward.

#5 Make a clear request for action. The last step is to simply ask what you want the other person to do differently.

Here are a few tips to increase the likelihood of success.

- Say what you want — not what you don’t want.

- Be clear in the actions you want them to do — not whom you want them to be.

- Make a request and not a demand

- Ask for confirmation and provide support

There is an art to delivering critical feedback in a way the other person feels heard, and you both move forward together. It won’t be comfortable the first time around, and you likely won’t be great at it either. Use these five steps when you don’t know where to start. It will take practice, but over time, it will become easier. You’ll be surprised at the impact and response you’ll get.

When you identify the purpose of the conversation, focus on the facts, own your reactions, open for possibility and make a clear request, you not only support the development of your employee, you also enhance your chances at reaching a productive outcome.

Originally published on Forbes on December 1, 2017