Deliver and Accept Difficult Feedback
Who loves feedback?
It is one of the most annoying corporate buzzwords I can think of.
“Do 360 feedback.” “HR wants feedback in the system.” “You are replaceable.” “Your team does not like you.” “We are happy with your performance.” “You are too silent during meetings.”
Feedback can be helpful, but it can also be problematic. It depends on what and how it is delivered and received.
Yet feedback makes people a bit anxious. No one likes hearing criticism. Some leaders are masters at putting you down and piling up all your small mistakes on top of each other.
It can be overwhelming. But feedback is needed. Otherwise, you end up working with underperformers, soloists, and toxic people.
Let me give you four steps to deliver/receive feedback. Make feedback worth it.
1. Feedback preparation
Imagine you get feedback from a few clients. They do not want to work with one of your coworkers. The reason is that your colleague is too slow at his projects because he tends to check everything three times. What should you do?
Prepare for feedback. Don’t wait for the annual talk. Deal with it now.
Feedback always needs to be well-prepared. Preparation is the most important step in the feedback cycle.
The game plan:
Collect relevant details and facts, and do not leave any loose ends. People are likely to demand specific examples!
Decide to focus on two things. The majority of people get emotionally hijacked if you criticize them. Their brains switch off anyway after the first few lines of what they did wrong.
Prepare and practice scenarios for a feedback meeting. If it turns out well, if people defend themselves, if there is shouting, etc. Tune your emotional state to empathy and listening.
Share a proper meeting name and agenda. No vague ‘30 catchup’. But ‘Feedback about XX’.
Prepare for your conversation. Don’t beat around the bush. Go to the point. Discuss it and move on.
The best feedback is delivered when it is relevant — rather early than later. It should be specific, non-personal, and focused. The moment you jump from one topic to another, the conversation tumbles down like a card tower. Keep it narrow.
People have terrible experiences with feedback meetings. They catch them off guard. In the end, they attack the character of the individual ("You're too much of an introvert." "You're better than others."), or present a confusing sandwich message ("You're great, but ...").
Now when you are the one receiving feedback, you need some mental prep too. Obviously, you do not know the content, but you can set your mind to be present during the meeting.
Bring a positive attitude to a meeting. Even if you expect negative news.
Try to listen as much as possible. Control your fuse. The natural reaction is fight or flight. But you can choose to have a normal dialogue.
Feedback is like a collaboration story. It is an opportunity to find out how two people or teams can work better together.
Don’t try to change yourself, change the way you see collaboration and what could be improved.
Activate your growth mindset and commit to finding a solution.
Feedback is a chance to learn something you did not know about yet. Discover your blind spot:
Source: Funda Koca Gülbay
2. Feedback conversation
Feedback meetings can be pretty formal and stiff. Never forget that you are talking to a human being. Don’t play with artificial intelligence. Imagine how other people feel when they are told difficult news.
One of the golden rules of feedback is to go to the point and don’t beat around the bush. Say what you have prepared. But let it flow like a conversation or a story.
If you have prepared for scenarios, you know a person might become:
Based on the reaction, decide whether to continue the conversation or break it and revisit it later. But always make sure the other person understands what you have said.
“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” – Tony Robbins
Some leaders like listening to themselves and talking and talking. Such feedback is not effective. Rather, approach it like a story with an introduction, background, conflict, and resolution. Both sides need to agree on a solution. If you tell people what to do, they won’t do it out of principle. Get their buy-in, and smooth actions will follow.
When you receive feedback you hadn't expected, you will likely become emotionally hijacked. You must calm down and ask for time to think about it before you react. It is better to break the meeting than to overreact.
Emotionally charged conversations lead nowhere. Everyone will be hurt.
Feedback conversations are about finding solutions together. Not showing who is better or wrong or right and wrong. The world is not against you. Take it easy.
3. Feedback digestion
Some feedback is delivered abruptly. A client shouted at me over the phone. I was in shock. It took me a while to digest it and talk about it.
When you deliver difficult feedback, expect people to need some time to process it. Don’t push for quick answers and agreements. It is not fair, not friendly.
Give people time to think about it.
Likewise, ask for a time when you receive shi* feedback. The best course of action is to revisit the conversation in a couple of days. Not too long though, as feedback should still be a ‘hot potato’. You will see the next conversation will be much more productive.
When feelings calm down, you are back on track.
Feedback should always be given with positive intentions. It does not ruin relationships, your work performance, or general safety at work.
Although, bad leaders are pretty arrogant and can tell you things like: “You are replaceable.” “We can hire 10 people like you.” When you deal with such a big-headed idiot, consider changing boats.
Feedback builds trust if delivered well.
4. Feedforward and a fresh breath of air
Feedforward is a direct result.
By discussing what worked well and what did not, you aim to improve something for the future. Don’t dwell on the past too much. You cannot change it! You can only influence what happens next.
It is way too common in corporate structures that feedback sticks with you. It is like a stick on your back. It stinks. Once you made a mistake, people gossip and remember it. It is annoying.
That is why you must close feedback and move on. If you constantly remind someone, you will poison their performance. “Remember last time you made the same mistake?"
People get worried and bitter if feedback is hanging in the air. I have seen many times how useless open feedback is. People tend to lose their confidence and ask all the time:
“Is it better now?”
“Is it good enough now?”
“Does my team like me more now?”
“Are you happy now? Can I be promoted?”
After you have completed 1-2 actions, close the feedback. The case is closed.
If you are the one receiving it, accept it, work it out, and move forward. Don’t think about it. Life goes on. Difficult conversations need to be handled and let go. That is how you grow as a person and as a leader.
Imagine feedback as a short turn in your journey. In the end, you can breathe fresh air. Enjoy this moment. That is what well-delivered and handled feedback does.
You will see that different people perceive things differently. What is a joke for one person can be offensive to others. Work on your social sensitivity. It is a worthwhile investment.
If you want your team to work, teach everyone how to deliver and receive feedback.
Communicate transparently and hold each other accountable for quality. Too many fun teams have communication problems. Then you have gossip, broken morale, and people who hunt for your head.
Try to reach a state where no one is afraid of speaking up and having difficult conversations. You will come to work every day in a good mood.
Text me if you want to practice difficult feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org