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Framing the message

1331 A/E AEC Architecture brutal honesty Category_Articles communication dialogue difficult discussions discussions effective feedback Engineering Feedback JQ Engineering Leader Leadership messaging Mitchell Shope negative feedback Perspective Plan receiving feedback receiving negative feedback Responsibility

Implement these tips to decrease tension and drastically increase the utility of your feedback.

How many times have you planned out a script to provide constructive feedback to a co-worker or team member, only to have it fly out of the door the second you walk into a room to begin the dialogue? In the famous words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, “No plan survives contact with the enemy … but no one survives contact with the enemy without a plan.”

Acknowledging that it is crucial to have these difficult discussions is the first step, but then the age-old question arises: “How do I tell someone about something that they don’t want to hear?” To investigate this tricky dialogue, implement the following tips to not only decrease the tension in the conversation but also drastically increase the utility of the feedback provided:

  1. It starts before you enter the room. The effectiveness of feedback is chiefly dependent on the relationship and established trust between the party giving the criticism and the party receiving it. Your potential for delivering pertinent and valuable feedback is hugely limited by the benevolence-based trust developed with your employees – if they know you have their best interest at heart, they’ll listen to anything you have to say. This rapport takes time, dedication, and upkeep but plays a pivotal role in your influence with your employees.
  2. Know whom you’re talking to and change how you talk. Receiving negative feedback is a vulnerable situation on both sides of the table. Knowledge of your employees’ personalities and tendencies is crucial to delivering appropriate feedback – some individuals will respond well to a direct, strong approach while others will appreciate more forewarning and time to absorb information. Tailor your discussion to your individual employees to maximize the effectiveness of your feedback.
  3. Avoid the crap sandwich. Compassionate reflex will push you to mitigate the impact of negative feedback by sandwiching your comments with praise. If you’re here to provide negative feedback, then provide negative feedback. Recent metadata from Leadership IQ shows that undermining your message with positivity miscues the recipient into hearing only the compliments. In the words of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
  4. But no “brutal honesty” either. Despite the trendy uptake in the “take your medicine and get over it” approach from companies such as Netflix, research unequivocally shows that these heavy-handed approaches to feedback have resulted in long-term diminished employee performance, reduced trust and accountability, and increased conflict in the workplace. While effective in the short-term, the shockingly high turnover rate and low employee satisfaction levels at Netflix demonstrate the drawbacks of this system. Bluntness and directness are enabled only by a lengthy establishment of trust and symbiotic benevolence on both sides of the table.
  5. Focus on behaviors, not personality traits. Defensiveness is ignited by perceived attacks on personality, so be explicit with the behavior rather than making inferences about personality. For example, if giving feedback to a project manager, phrase your feedback as “I noticed in the meeting this morning that you were hesitant to hold your direct reports accountable for their work” instead of “I think you are being too shy and reserved; you should be more confident.”
  6. No in-game feedback. While tempting, refrain from giving criticism while in the moment of a meeting or presentation. Nothing is more draining or flustering than having a superior critique your management abilities in front of your reports – it will negate any chance of respectful dialogue or high-utility feedback. Make notes, wait, and approach the individual well after their adrenaline levels have subsided.
  7. Request and develop perspective. Ask ample questions about your observations of the situation. Asking simple things like “how did you feel that meeting went?” or “what would you have handled differently if you could revisit your approach?” can help build your knowledge and perspective of the situation. Particularly important when providing feedback to superiors, allow the individual to self-evaluate before providing your feedback. Finish this dialogue by “feeding forward” as opposed to “feeding back” by focusing on what the individual can do differently from this point moving forward instead of lambasting what happened in the past.
  8. Take blame, but do not victimize yourself. While leaders should acknowledge and claim responsibility for their followers’ actions, do not over-emphasize your failure to the point that it shifts the tone and purpose of the feedback onto you. Providing examples of how the situation could have been handled more appropriately, then subsequently providing a framework for achieving the desired change is an effective practice that keeps the emphasis on the development of the employee while also contributing the necessary framework and support as a leader.
  9. Ensure future steps are clear. Likely the most important point of all, outlining the positive steps to be taken forward is the most crucial part of any feedback delivery. If criticism is not consistently backed by forward-focusing support and development, it stunts the effectiveness and likelihood of long-term improvement.

Embracing these methods will not only improve your ability to provide feedback to your peers but also strengthen and establish ongoing trust. Every individual strives to develop themselves and be an asset to their employer, so build a baseline of openness and respect to capitalize on the most your staff has to offer!

Mitchell Shope is a project engineer with JQ Engineering in Dallas, Texas. He holds a master of engineering degree from MIT in structural engineering. Contact him at mshope@jqeng.com.



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