Tough Feedback: Challenges and Tips You Should Know!
Giving tough feedback is challenging! No matter how experienced leaders are and how many times they had difficult conversations with members of their teams, the tough feedback can sometimes turn sour — sending a shiver down the spine of the manager and employee. How can leaders make the most of these moments to push for development and excellence? This article discusses possible paths to turning these moments into opportunities for reflection and growth. Let’s get started!
What is “tough feedback”?
The term “tough feedback” points to the challenge, and often discomfort, of sharing negative feedback with a team member. It also refers to the ability to do so in a way that motivates change rather than defensiveness. Often referred to as constructive criticism, tough feedback can be a crucial tool to encourage employees’ growth despite sweaty palms.
Trust: A key element
My personal experience giving challenging feedback confirms the critical role of trust.
The more I advanced in leadership roles, the more I understood that building a strong and positive connection with my team members paved the way to more productive feedback encounters. By establishing a safe space and building trust and rapport, we can address sore points so that our team members are not emotionally hijacked but rather more open to listening and reflecting. We can never underestimate the relevance of building trust! But how can we do that? I always started with validation.
How often do you validate your team members?
I would regularly, intentionally, and openly acknowledge their positive contributions. A thought-provoking HBR article indicates that praise is fundamental to helping our team members recognize what excellence looks like. When you highlight a pattern or behavior that is already part of their performance, you help your team members recognize, anchor, re-create, and refine it, promoting learning. The authors suggest we demonstrate our positive perceptions using phrases like “This is how that came across for me,” “This is what that made me think,” or “Did you see what you did there?”2 Additionally, praise the effort and explain exactly what actions prompted your praise. Avoid being vague or generic.
But how does praise contribute to building trust? In my experience, consistently praising my team members also helped them understand that I ‘saw’ and valued their positive contributions. This paved the way for them to be more open when the time came for harsh feedback.
Elements of High-Impact Feedback
Clearly define your main objectives in the conversation. Reflect on what you want to achieve and the impact you would like the session to have. Effective feedback needs to be specific, timely, meaningful, and candid. Remember that we should tell the truth but with compassion. Therefore, you need to plan and prepare for it in advance. Role-play difficult conversations when necessary. It will help you listen to yourself and refine your delivery, contributing to building a more relaxed actual conversation.
2. Establish common ground. Your intention to help your employee improve and grow and your commitment to their development should be clearly stated at the beginning of the conversation. Remember that becoming an effective coach is one of the most critical skills a leader can develop, and giving tough feedback calls for your role as a coach. After all, their success is your success as well!
3. Remember that openness on your part is essential to creating a more robust connection that will facilitate change. Given that emotions are contagious, if you start feeling uncomfortable and self-protective, “your employee will match that energy, and you’ll each leave the conversation frustrated with the other person.”
4. Share your feedback and focus on the best course of action in the future. After all, most of the time, we cannot change the past, but we can learn from it and plan for the future.
5. Invite the employee to the problem-solving process. Ask questions, listen carefully, and collaboratively build the development plan. “Ask questions such as: What ideas do you have? What are you taking away from this conversation? What steps will you take, by when, and how will I know?”
Extending tough feedback or constructive criticism is a skill we need to work on continuously. After all, we all want each member of our teams to maximize their potential. We highly recommend you reflect on your practices and invest in implementing some of the tips above. Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments. Also, don’t forget to check out previous related articles!
We hope you enjoyed reading this article! If you want to learn more, our How to give Effective Feedback Master Class contains all the materials your managers and leaders will need to enhance their feedback skills to skyrocket their professional capabilities and act as catalysts of growth for your organization. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message us on LinkedIn to schedule a 15-minute telephone or virtual consultation to learn more about how we can partner with you to turn your leadership goals into reality!
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Vera Alves is the Chief Consulting Officer at Leader Essentials Group, with extensive experience in leadership development and business management. With over 12 years of experience as a C-suite executive, Vera is highly skilled in leadership, strategic planning, operations management, organizational behavior, and change management. She possesses highly developed communication, training, and linguistic skills reflective of a very strong and charismatic leadership style.
 Valcour, M. (2015). How to Give Tough Feedback That Helps People Grow. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from How to Give Tough Feedback That Helps People Grow (hbr.org), 03/02/2023 Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A. (2019). The feedback fallacy. Harvard Business Review, 97(2), 92-101.  Davey, L. (2015) Deliver Feedback That Sticks. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from Deliver Feedback That Sticks (hbr.org), 03/02/203.