Article: Having tough conversations: How to give feedback to employees

Performance Management

Having tough conversations: How to give feedback to employees

Giving or receiving feedback can be very difficuilt for manager and for employees. Preparation, right intention and courage can help managers get the best from their teams

A much difficult job is to ensure that mindset of the employee and the manager is ‘right' when they come in for the meeting


Tough conversations are as important as normal conversations, so don't run away from them – face them, challenge them, resolve them with the right mind-set


Life can be complex and so can be conversations. All of us want pleasant experiences. Giving or receiving tough feedback is like a road no one wants to tread. It is hard for managers to share harsh feedback with an employee – they all need support, reassurance and may be protection from a difficult situationIn my experience majority of the managers shy away from having tough conversations with their team members. In fact, I have seen managers running in panic to human resources for assistance. Anyone can make out that they have an inherent subconscious expectation that HR would take it all up forthrightly with the employee.

Almost all the times that I have been approached to carry forward such conversations with an employee, (who may be a low performer or who may not be meeting his goals or may be having interpersonal issues with other team members or may be just a plain slow starter and needs feedback strongly), I have gone back and asked the manager a million questions concerning the whats, whys and hows. I have also received stinking mailers asking me why I was being so enquiring. Well, it isn’t so simple.I have asked managers to prepare in writing, the following before such a meeting:

  • What is the story you tell yourself about the issue that causes you to act in a certain way with the employee and therefore provokes a reaction in another person? Are you willing to tell yourself a different story if you want your actions and the results you get to be different?
  • List down the concrete instances where the problem was and what was your response? 
  • Collate all that in writing, that you would have already sent to the employee (and therefore already perhaps done the damage!) without perhaps consulting human resources
  • What do you exactly want to tell the other person in the meeting? 
  • Don’t confuse “being emotional” while talking about your feelings. Pretending they don’t exist only means they’ll return to “fight” another day. However DO NOT overdo it
  • When you encounter silence or forceful resistance on another person’s part, it can mean they are feeling unsafe. Ask yourself what you can do to make them safe
  • Keep the questions below to test others’ conclusions & thoughts …
    • What leads you to think so?
    • What is an example of the kind of thing you are saying?
  • Questions that allow you to test your own conclusions and thoughts with your team members are…
    • What is your reaction to what I am saying?
    • Does anyone have a different view or different data?
    • Is there anything I’m missing?

A much difficult job is to ensure that the mindset of the employee and the manager is ‘right’ when they come in for the meeting. “Right” means that they both are willing to solve the problem at hand and not “accuse” each other, That’s a tough one. As I always maintain, behaviors are very tough to change. The key is how you can maintain confidentiality of the whole situation while extracting data and information key to resolving the problem..

In present days of the economy, tough conversations assume further significance especially when it’s a hard decision to be made concerning letting employees go or giving them feedback on performance improvement. However the background questions remain the same and that preparation is key to the conversation. Performance expectations have changed to becoming tougher. Not only is a manager who cannot share tough feedback into focus, the emphasis is also on the employee who cannot receive it constructively.
In India, a large part of our conversations are emotional. However everything you say need to be logical and, definitive,

We are Hardwired to Jump to Conclusions - “Think not that thy word and thine alone must be right.” - Sophocles, Antigone, 706

I have observed the following very random behavior in situations that make it even more complex:

  • The team member (am applying this to both genders as I have seen it in both) starts crying profusely when shared with tough feedback
  • The team member hints at something as grave as sexual harassment and favoritism when in a tough conversation
  • The employee starts sweating, wants to go out for a phone call or wants to talk to someone else mid way during the meeting
  • The employee raises voice unimaginably and is set to return back (may be violently) to what you have shared
  • The employee seems completely silent and depressed and one worries what would happen after the meeting
  • The employee turns argumentative and doesn’t loose out on arguments at the end of every sentence you speak or he speaks

I can go on with many other similar situationsThere could be many surprises in the off-wing so prepare for them. The bottom-line is to keep your cool and the right attitude.tough conversations are as important as normal conversations, so don’t run away from them – face them, challenge them, resolve them with the right mind-set.

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Topics: Performance Management, Employee Engagement, Culture, #ExpertViews

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