Blog - 7 steps to delivering courageous and constructive feedback

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The elephant in the room: 7 steps to delivering courageous and constructive feedback

The elephant
in the room

7 steps to delivering courageous and constructive feedback

B.J. Fineman | March 16, 2015

“Success is never final and failure never fatal. It's courage that counts.” - George Tilton

When it comes to the challenges associated with giving employees constructive feedback, we rarely talk about lack of courage. We spend so much time on nomenclature—use these nouns and these verbs—but the words won’t come out without courage.

I believe that we lack courage because we scare ourselves before we execute. Do any of these mental tapes sound familiar? I won’t say it right. She’ll hate me. I’ll hurt his feelings. I’ll come across as awkward or unsure. I won’t respond correctly if he/she gets emotional (mad, sad, etc.).

Yet intellectually, we all know that feedback is a good thing—for our own growth, and for that of our employees. This knowledge is supported by numerous studies. According to a Towers Watson global workforce survey, only 39% of employees think that senior leadership does a good job of developing future leaders. A Harvard Business Review survey found that by roughly a three-to-one margin, employees believe that constructive feedback does even more to improve performance than positive feedback.

Knowing this, however, doesn’t necessary translate into an ability to execute—to overcome our flight or fight response. Here are seven steps to help you become adept at delivering courageous and constructive feedback:

  1. Become aware. Notice when those tapes are playing in your head. Choose to replace the fearful stories with more optimistic stories, such as, I’m curious how this conversation will go, versus I’m fearful how it will go, and I know that my intentions are in the right place versus he’s not going to receive the message well.

    Either tape is a story, but one supports your taking action, and the other supports lack of action. Say these two statements out loud, and sense the different moods that you feel.

  2. Generate a definition of success that you have complete control over. Many of us define success based on the reaction of the team member that’s receiving the feedback, but we have no control over another human’s reaction. We do have control over our tone of voice and our level of preparedness and sincerity. Consider defining success by the latter rather than the former.

  3. Create your own template. You can reduce the worry around presenting the information correctly by leveraging a feedback template for every discussion. If your company doesn’t have a template available, create your own. What’s key is capturing the feedback that you intend to convey (constructive and positive), and how you intend to convey it.

  4. Practice. We often spend more time complaining to our colleagues about having to provide feedback than leveraging these colleagues to practice having the conversation. Take advantage of the same colleagues after the feedback conversation to debrief and to discuss lessons learned. You can do so without compromising confidentiality: This process can be effective without naming the employee.

  5. See the forest through the trees. Keep the big picture in mind by asking yourself what’s driving you to provide feedback. Perhaps it’s care for the employee combined with a desire to see your company reach a goal. Whatever the reason, keeping this higher vision top of mind will support your taking action.

  6. Give yourself a break. Don’t expect perfection, and congratulate yourself for having the courage to engage in the conversation.

  7. Accept that there is no magic bullet. The more constructive the feedback, the easier it will be to have the conversation … but it may never be truly easy. As noted organizational coach Bob Dunham often asks: Are we committed to our commitment (the growth of our employees), or are we committed to our comfort?

    How would you like to answer this question?

B.J. Fineman is a leader in the Organizational Effectiveness practice at Slalom’s Dallas office. B.J. enjoys helping organizations and teams produce outcomes that matter.

B.J. Fineman is no longer with Slalom.


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