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How to Give a Colleague Bad News

By Guest Author On March 20, 2011 Under Success Secrets

Unnecessary workplace conflict can often arise out of poorly delivered feedback or worse, feedback that is never delivered. Feedback buried alive never dies, so holding onto it is just not an option but how do you give effective feedback?

Giving performance feedback to a colleague presents us all with a real dilemma; on the one hand I want to be able to help them improve their performance but I’m worried they might react negatively, on the other hand if I don’t give them the feedback then nothing will change and the situation will get worse over time, but at least I don’t have to face up to it now! It is a tough decision, once you’ve made the decision you then have to compile your feedback to reduce discomfort for you and them so put together a nice feedback sandwich; good news followed by bad news followed by good news.  How do you feel after a feedback sandwich! Giving effective feedback is one of the most underrated leadership skills, yet mastering this skill will increase the performance of those around you and your credibility as a respected leader in the process. 

A challenge that many of us face when giving feedback to a colleague is the ability to distinguish between what is said and done and what we think was said and done – this is the difference between direct observation and inference.  What strikes me most about performance feedback is just how inconsistent the process is in general. What I see, the inferences I make and the conclusions I draw will inevitably be different from the observations, inferences and conclusions of the next person, having the awareness to distinguish between inference and observation will raise you to the top of the leadership charts .

But surely as long as the feedback we give is on the basis of what we think we see and hear and the extent to which we think those behaviours meet or exceed explicit performance expectations then then what’s the big deal?  . The problem in my view arises when we think we know and are not open to the possibility we might not know or have missed something. That’s why giving effective feedback requires one to approach the conversation with a mind-set rooted in curiosity and an attitude of ‘let’s make this a learning conversation for both of us.’

Here are 5 essential steps to improve the quality of your feedback; 

  1. Clarity of purpose – be crystal clear why you are giving the feedback.
  2. Approach – Anchor yourself in curiosity with an appetite  to learn .
  3. 2-way process – Propose a structure or process to your conversation that allows you to;
    1.  Outline what you observed and get their reaction, do they see it the same way or different?  .
    2. Share the inferences you made and the conclusions you drew and ask for their reaction .
    3. Share the unintended consequences you think resulted from their actions or non-actions .
  4. Contribution – this is the difficult part and requires broad shoulders on the part of the leader – here you want to know whether they think you contributed to the problem and if so how. Alternatively you might think you’ve unwittingly contributed, if so then say so  .
  5. Accountability – Share the outcome and results that you want and ask for their ideas on how they might accomplish?* those outcomes . Ask if they see any problems in what you are asking of them   .

Feedback is after all a learning conversation but the learning should be two-way not unidirectional .

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