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How to Provide Feedback That Inspires People to Change

We’ve all been there.  We need to tell someone that what they’ve done isn’t correct, that there’s a better way of doing it or perhaps that they’re even out of line.  We’ve got to work ourselves up to say something, plan how we’re going to word it and wait in restless apprehension for the right moment to deliver it. But often the right moment never presents itself, and we figure that we may as well just wait until performance review time to pass that unpleasant message along.

Believe it or not, most employees wish that their manager wouldn’t wait.  In fact, in a recent literature review I conducted, “avoiding confrontation” was one of the most demotivating management traits cited by employees. Nobody likes being told that they’re wrong, but employees like managers who avoid confrontation even less.

Effective managers know that the best way to provide feedback that actually inspires others to change is to give it with the genuine intent of helping the employee be more successful, rather than giving it to pacify their own frustration with the employee.  Here are five key ways to help you develop, not demotivate, your employees.

1. Be Selective

First ask yourself if this behaviour is really a big deal, or is this something that is only an issue for you. I remember when a rather crusty VP of Construction once gave me some very insightful advice. After I complained to him about an issue I was having with an employee, he said, “Be careful not to bring up every little thing that bothers you about this employee. Otherwise, they’ll end up feeling like they’re walking on eggshells around you.”

2. Give Feedback Fast

Give feedback immediately after you observe the behaviour that needs correcting. When you do, it’s pretty hard for the employee to deny it. Taking employees aside and privately pointing out to them what you just observed is more likely to get a positive reaction like, “Yes, I guess you’re right. I should probably work on that,” rather than if you wait to speak with them later.

3. Get Curious, Not Furious

If you’re frustrated, count to ten and calm down. Ask yourself, “Am I giving this feedback so that this person can be more successful, or so that they’ll stop irritating me?” If it’s the former, your employee will feel it, and may actually thank you for it. If it’s the latter, you may damage your relationship with them, which could create a domino effect of problems for you down the road.

Instead, lead feedback with questions, rather than assertions.  You could say something like, “That’s not normally like you. Is everything all right today?” Or, “How are things going for you right now?” Remember, your goal is to help the employee improve their performance without destroying their self-confidence.

4. Don’t Sugarcoat It

Surprisingly, top executives are among the worst at giving performance feedback because they can’t help sugarcoating their words. This is because their ability to sugarcoat things was likely one of the very skills that landed them the top job. But when you sugarcoat the issue, your feedback will not sink in the way you think it will. Instead, it’s misleading, sends mixed signals and will only add to the frustration of both you and your employee.

5. Focus On Strengths

Focus on your employee’s strengths, and try to find work-arounds for their weaknesses. For example, if one of your employees is terrible at formatting documents, ask the best document formatter in the company if they would help your employee out. When you explain to the prospective helper how rare and valuable their skill set is, they will be proud that you called on them to help out. Your employee, in turn, will feel like you’re trying to clear the path for them to be successful.

If, however, your employee is lacking in an area that they need to be better at, don’t give up on them too quickly. Find a new role for them that allows them to do what they do best. Whatever the case may be, don’t become preoccupied with your employees’ weaknesses. As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman wrote in First, Break All the Rules, “Relationships preoccupied with weaknesses never end well.”

Managers don’t need to be confrontational, but they do have to know how to address poor performance. Fortunately, being an effective leader is less of an art than people may think. It’s as simple as knowing what to do and what not to do, and then applying it.

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