Unconventional Wisdom on Constructive Feedback

March 4, 2015

In my previous post, I talked about emotional reactions to issues at work; specifically, things that make people cry.  In that post, I alluded to the idea that advanced warning of difficult messages gives time to process the issue, reduces the surprise factor, and makes it easier to control the emotional side of the discussion.  That idea was just a passing thought in the crying post, but I thought it was worth returning to it in more depth here.

I got the idea for this post from a recent experience on my own team.  You might remember that I wrote a post a few weeks ago about welcoming three new members to our team.  Well, as I usually do with new teammates, I gave them my Owner’s Manual tool and asked them to share with me the instructions for working well with them.  You can get your own copy here.

On the questionnaire, there is a question that asks about how you like to receive feedback (both positive and constructive). One of the options is to ask that someone notify you by email of the high level feedback before sharing it with you face-to-face.  Interestingly, all three new folks checked that box for constructive feedback.  They each want to get a heads up when a tough message is coming.

Normally, the conventional wisdom is to share constructive feedback face-to-face. In many cases, you might wait specifically so you can deliver the tough message in person.  But here were three people all at the same time telling me that they don’t want me to do that. Fascinating.

As I reflect on it, I think it’s that people want to keep some semblance of control over emotions at work.  And getting a tough message, particularly one that comes out of left field, makes it really difficult to stay in control.  For some, the reaction is emotional, for others it’s defensive, or embarrassed, or angry. None is particularly flattering or contributes to your perception of them as a high flyer.

So next time you have a difficult message to deliver, think about how the person would prefer to receive it. (Actually, it’s best to ask this question in advance, so you already know the answer when the time comes.)

A Phased Approach

For those who want it, try a phased approach. What could you communicate in advance that tips the person off to an issue and gives them some time to think and reflect before having to respond? How could you allow the person a small degree of control to make the constructive feedback more palatable?  Maybe something like “I had a member of another team come to me with concerns about you not delivering your parts of the project on time.  Can you give it some thought and we’ll talk about your perspective when we get together on Thursday.”

Or Not

It’s just as important to know who doesn’t want the advanced warning. Some people ruminate over the advanced message and catastrophize over even something relatively minor.  These people probably take any pre-communication way too seriously and beat themselves up until you finally get together and explain.  For those folks, you’re best to just wait for the face-to-face and make sure your message lands as it was intended.

I’m so glad I know that the new folks on our team would like some advance notice on constructive feedback.  Now I know to only surprise attack with the positive feedback, which is so much more fun anyway!

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