Worried about Giving Challenging Feedback to Your Reportee?

You are a line manager and people from your own team as well as other departments start telling you that your reportee Mary is difficult to work with. Her performance in terms of targets hit is outstanding and you don’t want to demotivate her.

You want Mary to become more of a team player and be more collaborative.

You are worried about having this difficult conversation with Mary, will she get upset, become demotivated and go on a downwards spiral?

Stage 1 — Understanding the Problem

You have a number of people who have reported the same thing: if someone says “no” to Mary she becomes rather aggressive and pushy. She sometimes shouts in meetings if people disagree with her and in general people often describe her as “prickly”.

Some of the people who report this say to you: “Mary is prickly and difficult to work with, but I don’t want Mary to know it was me who said it.”

Your response as Mary’s Line Manager in this situation should not be: “ok then, I won’t tell her who said this, I will just tell her to stop being prickly.” You should clarify that if they want you to be able to do something about her behaviour, you have to be able to give concrete examples.

If feedback comes from the other departments, you have to be able name names and situations. If feedback is given, it has to be open.

You should ask for details from this person and everyone else who gives feedback and have concrete examples from them, otherwise all you will do is antagonise and upset Mary by saying people have said she is difficult to work with without any evidence. If she asks you for examples, you will be stuck and all you will manage to do is demotivate and upset her.

Ask people to tell you exactly:

· when this happened,

· how it happened,

· what do they mean by “prickly”, “aggressive”, “pushy” — what did she say or do

· who else was there, what do they think, what did they see?

· about whom,

· in what context she said it and so on.

You need to be able to give her specific examples and not go on hearsay.

Stage 2 — Understanding Mary’s Perspective

In the first instance have a meeting with her where you only find out about her perspective. Come to this meeting with the mind frame to listen to understand, not to make a case to her about her behaviour.

o How does she feel about working in this team?

o What frustrations does she have?

o Is there anything is she blocked on at the moment?

o How is her life at the moment? (Is she suffering any problems which may be the reason for her negativity?)

Listen to understand, don’t listen to respond. Ask questions to deepen the answer not to just get an overview of her perspective.

If you genuinely listen to understand, people will open up and say how they see things.

How do you show you listened to understand?

By telling Mary what you heard and asking for confirmation:

“What I understand is that John several times did not respond to your request when you asked him for X information and he was 2 months late on Y issue, which meant you were late on your deadline. Is that right?”

This meeting should be just about trying to understand what Mary thinks about others and her situation. It is also to help you understand if this is really happening or is it just her/her colleagues’ perception?

Prepare, prepare, prepare — you cannot over prepare for this situation. The more people you speak to and the more stories you gather, the easier it will be for you to get a clear picture of what is going on and work together a constructive ways forward.

Remember Mary is a human being, if the roles were reversed, how would you like to be told about your aggressiveness, prickliness and that you are difficult to work with?

Stage 3 — What to say in The Meeting where you give the feedback

First and foremost, you have to be honest about what is going on. Be prepared that the meeting is likely going to get emotional.

In meetings where people receive constructive feedback, especially if they did not expect it,people will get emotional and their amygdala (the survival part of the brain) will react with fight, flight or freeze.

The reason for this is that constructive feedback is perceived by the brain as rejection. Our brain is wired to perceive rejection as a threat, because 3,000 years ago you would have been dead if rejected by the tribe (as you could not survive alone in the wild). Even though society has evolved, our brains have not kept up in the same way, this is why most people also fear getting “no” from others.

Experienced staff (especially engineers) often tell me they dislike the traditional constructive feedback structure, they call it “the s**t sandwich” which is: tell them something good, tell them something they can improve on, tell them something good.

You know Mary and you know how long she’s been in the organisation. If you have a good relationship with her, it will be easier for you to deliver the feedback in a way that she can feel is genuine. You will likely know if she prefers things to come out straight away, or if she needs to be eased into the situation.

My suggested approach for feeding back constructive feedback:

1. Start the meeting by asking how things have been since you last spoke.

2. Listen to understand.

3. If necessary, show her empathy and compassion. (Here is an article about how you show empathy and compassion.)

Be very honest about why you asked Mary to meet. (e.g. “Mary, I have had some feedback from colleagues about you and I’d like to discuss this with you and agree some ways forward that work for both of us.”)

4. Tell Mary the story of what has happened:

· what you heard from her in the one to one meeting you had in stage 2

· remind her about the fact that you appreciate she hits her targets regularly

· say what had prompted the meeting in stage 2 you had with her. i.e. what happened in stage 1:

o people (and which people) gave you feedback about her being “aggressive” and “pushy”

o what are the specific situations when this happened, what they said, what she had done or said (e.g. those situations colleagues mentioned about when she gets a “no” she becomes pushy)

o what colleagues (and which colleagues) mean by “prickly” and specific examples of what she did or said that made them think/feel this.

· Remind her you understand colleagues frustrated her because they didn’t give her information in time (or other reasons she might have given you in stage 2) and ask her how she would like you to support her as well to enable her to work better with colleagues

· Ask her what she thinks she could do to improve the way she and colleagues can work better together

· Agree with her a clear action plan of what you and she will do to improve her collaboration with colleagues.

Giving someone constructive feedback about their behaviour is a difficult task and most people prefer to avoid these conversations, even for years sometimes. The more senior people are, the harder it is for their line manager to talk to them about their behaviour.

I always suggest going with honesty and integrity — never give feedback you can’t back up with exact examples. Think if roles were reversed: how would you like to be told you are aggressive or pushy?