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In the best businesses, everyone knows where they stand. Holding someone accountable is strictly between his or her performance and the expected standard. It’s not about you and that person, personally. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to get your team to the point where candor flows freely.
I admit it. Delivering feedback is tough if you’re not used to doing it. And doing it right takes courage and a healthy dose of tact. It’s irresponsible to just let feedback fly without considering its impact. After all, the reason you give feedback is to inspire someone to grow. If you’re doing it for any other reason — maybe because you need to be right or you’ve got an ego to feed — then you’re wrong and definitely not the person to offer constructive criticism.
Here are five keys to delivering feedback in a way that will inspire your people grow, instead of making them shrink out of fear and shame.
1. Focus on the other person.
To start building the feedback habit, your focus needs to be on the other person and how you can help him or her. What often prevents us from delivering feedback effectively is spending too much time thinking about ourselves and how we feel about delivering it — I just don’t know what to say, or I don’t know how I’m going to get through this conversation. This type of self-focus prevents us from being objective about the situation and getting to a place where we consider the other person and how they feel and how they would like to hear what we have to say. When you can make feedback about the person receiving it, not about the person delivering it, you start understanding how to frame your message in a way that inspires, rather than alienates, the recipient. So rather than start a sentence with, “Let me tell you why you’re wrong,” you might discover that “Hey, let’s discuss what just happened there” will prompt a more productive dialogue.
2. Talk to them in private.
Another idea is to be smart about picking your place. Make sure you’re having a private conversation. You never want to run the risk of embarrassing someone, which can have a negative, lingering effect on your relationship. I remember being on-site at a client’s office one time and, while waiting in the reception area, I heard screaming coming from a manager’s office nearby. A few seconds later, I saw a sullen employee walk out of the office and head to his cubicle. The receptionist looked at me, rolled her eyes, and apologized by saying, “I wish you weren’t here to witness this. Someone needs to have a talk with him about his screaming.”
Heightened, unharnessed emotions get in the way of feedback, and the message gets lost in the way it’s sent. I’ve even heard people defend their lack of tact. “I expect my team members to take a beating in one meeting,” they say, “then turn around and take one in another. They should be more resilient!” I agree. People should be resilient, and we shouldn’t have to treat each other with kid gloves. But resiliency isn’t born out of insults or public shaming. A better approach is to make feedback about the standard and the expectation rather than about the person, and to choose the right tone — one that makes the recipient of the feedback want to take it to heart.
And so it bears repeating: a leader is someone who influences outcomes and inspires others. To inspire, you have to deliver feedback that doesn’t make people cringe and shrink, but motivates them to grow.
3. Ask if they’re open to feedback.
After you find the right time and place and have specifically named the standard you’d like to address, the next step is to ask the person if he or she is open to feedback. Sometimes a simple conversation starter is, “Hey, I’ve observed something lately that you might find valuable. Are you open to hearing it?” If you’re giving feedback to one of your direct reports, you don’t technically need this kind of permission. Your role as a manager is to deliver feedback and improve your team member’s performance, but it’s a helpful, non-threatening way to start the dialogue.
4. Focus on what you have noticed.
When you offer your feedback, focus on what you’ve observed and what impact it’s had on you. Doing this eliminates hearsay. Also, it’s more difficult for the other person to get defensive when you’re speaking from your point of view. That’s not to say the other person won’t get defensive. All of us are human, and our egos, which remind us to defend ourselves at all costs, are always at work. What I’ve learned is that sometimes it’s good to remind people that what you are saying isn’t easy for you either. Round off the conversation with, “just please consider what I’ve offered.” I also advise not taking the bait if the other person starts hurling insults your way. The last thing you want is an argument. And when you receive feedback yourself during this conversation, offer a simple “thank you.”
5. Offer ideas for how they can improve.
What I’ve found is that if you care enough to offer feedback, you also need to have ideas for how the person can improve. There’s nothing more annoying than having someone raise an issue without offering any ideas on how to address it. Sparks are problem-solvers, not just problem-spotters.
The bottom line is that it’s critical to build the feedback habit. Do it once and then, as hard as it might feel, keep doing it. And open yourself up to criticism too. One spark who invites feedback can change an organization where it’s been almost taboo, and set off an organizational trend of welcoming feedback.
Sparks are committed to bettering themselves and others. When you start to speak up about problems, you’ll grow more comfortable doing so in the future. And as a result, you’ll find that the teams you’re a part of are less focused on petty issues and more focused on high performance, because everyone is working toward the same goal.