Key Learnings

  • Make a small checklist of talking points for a private meeting with the individual
  • Keep the conversation and feedback focused on the specific task, not the individual
  • Always ensure that the person knows what is required from them following the meeting
  • End the meeting with encouragement and positive feedback if possible
Richard Foster-Fletcher, of Toastmasters International

We know that our team members are working hard to deliver the best work they can, however, from time to time things can go badly wrong. Richard Foster-Fletcher, of Toastmasters International, has shared with UMi his advice on delivering feedback when a team member has underperformed.

As a business owner, you are both a leader and a supervisor, so when a team member has done some fairly dreadful work you know it’s important to give some honest feedback as soon as possible.

On its own negative feedback tends to be counter-productive. So, here are the approaches I’ve learned from experience to help get the message across, and ensure the person takes the necessary action without getting demoralised.

Give yourself time to control your emotions

Unsatisfactory work can make you despondent, angry, or irritated. None of these feelings are conducive to a healthy conversation, and in this situation, you cannot depend on the other person to maintain composure for both of you. So, take a deep breath, relax, make you are in a calm and collected state of mind before you even think of starting a conversation.

Do it right now

Giving negative feedback is not something to look forward to. However the sooner you do it, the stronger your case is likely to be. Time has a way of smoothing out the rough edges in people’s memories, so delaying such unpleasant interactions is likely to make the recipient feel they did a better job than they did. Bottom line, get the job done before time causes the impact of it to fade away.

Do it face-to-face

It’s tempting to pour all the unpleasant truths into the mail and avoid dealing with the consequences. But what feels better for you is terrible for the person on the receiving end, who, in addition to being upset and defensive, now probably has several questions but isn’t sure if you will welcome them or not. Emails are already bad at conveying positive emotions, so an email of negative feedback is that much worse. Face-to-face is the way to get the issues resolved.

Do it in private

I strongly believe when the work is truly bad, it makes no sense to chew the person out in front of their peers and make it an exercise in humiliation. Doing it in private allows the recipient to open-up a little more, and thus, be more receptive.

Make a checklist to avoid venting

I’ve been guilty of this before. Instead of discussing the problem, I have slipped into a “feedback loop” where I have gone on at length, attacking the work from various angles but basically saying nothing new and original. Making a small checklist of talking points before the session helps keep me on point and on track.

Why do people make mistakes?

Especially catastrophic mistakes that make such feedback sessions necessary? In my opinion, it can be boiled down to two things:

  • People care too much i.e. they wind themselves up into a frenzy and miss crucial details.                                                      
  • They don’t care at all and can’t be bothered to do a decent job.

In case of the former, it is important to address their work process and coach them to manage stress and deadlines equally well, while with the latter group, it is the attitude itself that needs to be addressed first.

Give the recipient a chance to speak

Continuing from the point above, once you are done laying out the basic issues and observations, it is best to let the other person speak. They are probably feeling quite defensive at this point, so it is helpful to have them take control of the narrative for the moment and provide their side of it. It makes them feel that you are there not just to criticise, but also listen, and makes a lot of difference on how feedback is perceived.

Discuss the work, not the individual

Keep the conversation and feedback focused on the specific task you are critiquing. This helps avoid anything that might be perceived as a personal attack. The person is probably already feeling a little defensive - commenting on anything else, especially not directly related to the work is going to make them even more so.

Specific problems and specific solutions

From the perspective of the recipient, few things are more infuriating than vague feedback. Try to avoid phrases like “this was quite bad” and “your work was of inadequate quality”. Discuss the work done and point to specific issues that went wrong. Then, discuss how those issues can be resolved. Without a discussion on what can be changed to improve the quality of the work, it is unlikely to be a productive discussion.

Establish a plan

One of the biggest mistakes I used to make regarding feedback was not deciding on a plan and a calendar date for follow-up. Whether it’s a rework of the original task, or specific measures the recipient should be taking to improve performance - always ensure that the person knows what to do and has some level of accountability after the review.

End with encouragement

Normally, I end formal reviews with positive feedback - something the person did right. However, when it comes to truly irredeemable work this is difficult, and can come off as insincere. In such circumstances, it is better to end with a statement reaffirming your faith that the person will be able to leave the inferior performance behind and move forward. If possible, refer to some past successful project to add weight to your encouragement. Try to ensure the person leaves the review hopeful, and not defeated

Contributed by Richard Foster-Fletcher
Kay Smith
Article by Kay Smith
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