How to Tell Someone They Did a Bad Job

Feedback at work is a tricky, tricky thing. Most of the time we either aren’t honest enough, or we don’t deliver feedback in a way that will help someone grow.

And really if you step back and look at a lot of what makes people miserable at work, what gets teams all twisted up, and what holds companies back from that level of breakthrough performance that they know they should be able to achieve, the lack of quality feedback is usually the culprit. Quality feedback is a game changer. It can help a struggling co-worker; it can straighten out a crooked strategy, and it can help your business hit its stride.

There are lots of reasons people don’t give enough feedback or when they do, it doesn’t hit home. Today we’re going to focus on the fact that most of us are so rusty and out of practice at giving meaningful feedback that we just aren’t very good at it.

We’ll focus on other aspects of feedback from time to time because of how critical it is to a happy spectacular work-life, and what a killer opportunity it is to change your company’s performance.

Be open

…particularly at the start. If your body language is closed off or you’re emotionally closed off (stiff, overly formal), the person you’re giving feedback to will match you and won’t be able to hear you. Make sure to put in the effort to connect with your “feedbackee,” especially if you’re their boss or don’t know them very well. Stay calm and present with them. (Maybe switch to decaf before the meeting.)

Focus on the future

There really is no use crying over spilled milk. One important dimension in a company’s culture is the degree to which a company uses mistakes as a teachable moment, or uses it to dole out “punishment.” Guess which one leads to a stronger culture with more engaged employees?

Sure, it’s important for your coworker or direct report to know why something needs to change, so use an example but then focus on what you are looking for from them that will be different and what success will look like moving forward. Steer the conversation to how their new behavior can make things better and help them see the impact it will have. Show the person you are giving feedback that the goal of the conversation isn’t to punish them or make them feel bad, but is to help them grow and improve.

Look at the big picture

It can be hard to hear about our personal failings. I think we can all agree on that, so remember to focus on why something needs to change, why it is important for the company and the strategy.

It’s so natural for those getting feedback to be defensive that we have to work especially hard so they can see the feedback we’re giving isn’t just our preference or opinion, but something that will help them help the company. This can make it easier for them accept that this alternative perspective or need for change is important.

Look at the big picture, again

Often, delivering negative feedback comes after one event, email or meeting, but you’re not just trying to fix that one event, email or meeting. Often the straw that broke the camel’s back was just that, just one straw of many. So, sometimes you have to call out a pattern of behavior, and you have to do so without piling on or potentially abusing them.

This is done by focusing on their behavior, not your belief about why they do it (such as what part of their personality they need to fix) and establishing agreement on the behavior or decision that you’re discussing. Once they can see what you think needs to be fixed, you can just note that you’ve seen multiple examples of this. If they ask, be ready to provide a specific example or two, but don’t list all of them off if they accept your point. This will help them see that you are not falling into the trap of blowing one incident out of proportion. It also avoids the making it seem like you have a list of grievances you’ve been waiting to air.

Just because you are discussing a pattern doesn’t mean that you can be vague. Specificity is important in feedback, so the person hearing the feedback is left with actionable steps to move forward.

Change the Behavior, not the Person

When describing a pattern of behavior, it’s easy to describe the problem as the person, because of their style or approach to things, rather than focusing on the behavior you are trying to change. Be wary of the trap of attributing the reason for their behavior to who they are. Always remember, you are giving them feedback to help them change their behavior, not their personality.

Similarly, there are issues that are so personal to your co-worker that it can be hard for the feedback not to seem personal. For example, concerns about someone’s confidence or executive presence may be important to discuss but are much more sensitive because they are perceived as directly connected to the individual’s personality (and often gender). Usually, it’s helpful to discuss the lack of impact that your colleague is having on others, or the difficulty they are having making a decision, which is tied more directly to the behavior than the cause (confidence).

But sometimes you have to tell the person that they are not “showing up” and having the impact that they need to and that it’s because of the way they are dressing and carrying themselves. Be especially caring and attentive to their feelings in these cases.

Don’t be such a Debbie Downer

Include positive feedback in addition to the constructive observations you share. Remember, this is a valuable member of the team, and you are there to help them (even if what they have done, repeatedly, has driven you to the brink).

Feedback has the most impact when it comes from someone that the individual respects and believes is giving it for their benefit. This sense, that you’re on their side even though you’re criticizing what they have done (or decided, or not gotten done), is key to helping them make use of what you’ve shared.  They are more likely to be open to hearing what you have to say when you recognize the strengths that they (and you) know they have.

Make sure that the person getting feedback knows that you not only expect them to change but that you believe that they can. Telling them this is much easier to pull off when you believe it. And this points us to our last piece of advice on giving feedback: don’t wait so long to give someone feedback that you no longer believe that they can change.

Give people feedback early, as soon as you notice a problem, rather than waiting and letting the situation get worse and worse. You will do a better job and be able to truly say you believe in them the earlier you give them the feedback that they need.

 

We know that a lot of this can be tricky when you add in personal dynamics and politics, so please email us with any questions or share them right in the comments!

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).

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2 responses to “How to Tell Someone They Did a Bad Job

  1. Great advice, John. The point that feedback is most impactful when it comes from someone we respect, reminds me of Kim Scott’s book on Radical Candor. Feedback requires clarity and directness but impact requires our knowing that the source cares and is in our corner.

    Hope all is well with you.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Val. Feedback is a complex topic, so I’m excited to get more into it in the coming weeks – keep an eye out. I hope all is well with you too.

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