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For New Bosses: 8 Tips for Difficult Feedback Discussions

There are three cardinal sins often committed by new managers.

The first is micromanagement. New managers have spent their entire careers getting their jobs done alone. Now that they have people working for them, it takes a little time to figure out how to let go. This sin is understandable.

The second sin is a refusal to ask others for help. Driven by their desire to prove that they can handle their new responsibilities, these bosses attempt to handle the task of managing people alone. This is a waste because their organization is full of people who were once first-time managers and have dealt with similar challenges, not to mention that their organization likely has a Human Resources department full of people willing to help them. This sin is a shame.

The third—and most deadly—sin committed by new managers is “feedback avoidance,” or the unwillingness of managers to provide their employees with candid feedback. For whatever reason—discomfort with confrontation, lack of time or poor communication skills—these managers don’t prioritize feedback discussions with their employees. As a result, their employees aren’t given the opportunity to improve. Far too many employees spend weeks, months, years and even entire careers working below their potential, in part because their managers were too afraid or too selfish to provide them with honest feedback about their performance and their standing within their organization.

This sin is…well, a tragedy.

Providing candid feedback to employees is good for the employee, boss and company. It creates transparency and increases productivity. It enhances the employee-boss relationship by fostering a spirit of candor and trust. But it does require some know-how, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. While open feedback discussions are critical to continuous improvement, feedback delivered the wrong way can have disastrous consequences. Here are a few guidelines to make sure that, when you feel it’s time to have a feedback conversation, you get it right.

1. Be Timely: When you’ve identified an opportunity for improvement, don’t wait more than a day or two to give feedback. There are few things more demoralizing to an employee than hearing that the boss has had an issue with his performance for quite some time, but chose not to tell him until the official performance review. Giving feedback immediately gives him a chance to fix the issue before the formal review and get back on track. Employees should never be surprised in a formal performance review because their bosses should be providing timely feedback all along the way.

2. Prime the Pump: It’s important not to catch your employee off guard. Before having the actual discussion with them, ask your employee either via email or in person to meet at a certain time to have a conversation. Tell him that you have some feedback for him and want to talk about it. This will give the employee time to mentally prepare for the conversation.

3. Don’t Sugarcoat: During the conversation, don’t tap dance around the feedback by using euphemisms and abstract words. Be direct and clear. You don’t want the employee walking out of the meeting misunderstanding your message. This applies to both positive and negative feedback. If your employee does something extremely well, tell him. If he needs to improve in an area, tell him.

4. Be Specific: Specific examples are the best way to illustrate your feedback because they are irrefutable. Saying that your employee is annoying is a highly debatable piece of feedback, but saying that you found it distracting when your employee interrupted you five times in the last meeting presents two irrefutable facts. First, he interrupted you five times. Second, you found it distracting.

5. Listen: All employees want to be heard and feel understood. Give your employee an opportunity to respond to your feedback. You may even be surprised to find that there is more to the story than you originally thought, and this could potentially change your mind. Yet even if it doesn’t, your employee should at least feel that you listened.

6. Infuse Hope and Optimism: Remember that the purpose of giving feedback is to create opportunity for improvement, so don’t be a downer. If you have provided negative feedback to an employee, he is likely to feel deflated, so take some time to pump him back up. One way to do this would be to provide specific suggestions of how to improve and propose and action plan. Ensure him that you have confidence that he will improve and get to where he wants to go in his career.

7. Open Yourself Up to Feedback: To have a relationship based on trust, feedback must go both ways. Employees should be allowed to give the boss feedback, so make sure to ask for feedback and give your employee an opportunity to be honest with you.

8. Document the Conversation: It’s just good record-keeping to document any feedback conversations that you have with employees. It's a great way to ensure clarity and track progress. Depending on the formality of the feedback discussion, you may want to give the employee a copy of your written feedback as well.

Best of luck to you in your future feedback discussions!


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