Let’s imagine you have the choice of either (1) delivering negative or critical performance feedback; or (2) spending the day stuck in a massive traffic jam. Which would you choose? I suspect you might at least be tempted choose the second option. Let’s face it, giving critical feedback is not fun for most of us. One of the reasons, I believe many of us dread giving negative feedback, is that we equate it with being unkind, uncaring, or uncompassionate. In reality providing feedback is an act of kindness.

Imagine a scenario where there was feedback you needed to give to one of your direct reports, a peer or friend about how a behavior was impacting the way she was seen within the organization. You just never got around to providing the direct feedback. Then she learns she was passed over for a promotion in part because of this behavior. Was failing to provide the feedback an act of kindness?

This blog post is the third in a series. In the first post I covered 9 Steps to Set the Stage for Success, and the second one addressed ways of Diffusing Defensiveness and Dealing with Negative Emotions. In this post, I will provide a specific approach to delivering feedback that is designed to be kind and compassionate, as well as to result in positive behavior change.

These first two points were discussed in the previous blog posts and are worth repeating.

1. Get very clear on your positive purpose. If you can’t clearly define your positive purpose for giving the feedback consider whether or not it is productive to have the conversation at all.

2. Ask permission. Yes even if you are the boss ask permission. However, avoid asking permission to provide feedback. Asking permission to provide feedback automatically puts the other person on the defensive and alerts the amygdala to possible danger – something you want to avoid. Here are some more effective options:

• Sally, do you have a couple of minutes? I have a something I would like to share my thoughts on.
• Do you have some time? I have a concern I would like to discuss with you.

While you don’t want to use the word feedback you do want to set a serious tone for the discussion. “I have a couple of ideas I want to bounce off of you” sends the other person’s brain in the wrong direction for the conversation you want to have.

3. Deliver the feedback as close in time to the event as possible. Don’t wait days, weeks or months and don’t “collect” examples to lay out all at once. Deliver the feedback as close to the event as possible.

4. Tie the conversation and the feedback to a goal you know they have. “Sally, we have discussed that one of your career goals is to move into a leadership role.”

5. Describe the specific behavior or action that you believe is problematic. “I’m not sure if you are aware of this or not. When one of your team members makes a suggestion or has an idea your first reaction tends to be to shoot holes in it. For example, earlier today when Bob suggested a solution to the problem we were discussing you immediately gave three reasons it would not work.”

Note: “You have a bad attitude” is not a specific behavior.

6. Share the impact of this behavior. “When you do this, it tends to stifle the problem solving process and leads people to see you as being negative. It makes me hesitant to share ideas with you, and I believe this will hurt your chances of getting the promotion you want.”

Be prepared to discuss intention versus impact. It is very likely that, in the scenario above, Sally will come back and say, “That’s not my intention.” And it probably is not her intention. It is important though that she understand the difference between intention and impact. I like to use this example: if my nephew and I are playing catch with a baseball and I have wild throw that breaks a car window that certainly wasn’t my intent. But the impact is a broken window none-the-less.

Note: Depending on your relationship with the person, you may want to exclude some or all of Steps 7, 8, 9 and 10 from your conversation.

7. Seek their agreement and commitment to make a change. “You have said it is not your intent to come across negatively and you have shared that you want a promotion so is this something you would like to work on?” “Are you willing to try something different?”

8. Involve them in designing a solution. “How would you like to respond differently when someone shares an idea?” or “How might you respond differently?”

9. Ask how you can support them.

10. Catch them doing the new behavior. There is a lot of research supporting the benefit of letting someone know when they are doing something right versus when they are messing up. You may need to, on occasion, point out when the person lapses back into their old ways, but shoot for catching them doing the new behavior five times for every one time you need to point out the lapse back to the old way.

You might still be tempted to choose sitting in a traffic jam over giving critical feedback but this process will make taking action to give critical feedback a whole lot easier. And, in the process you may just help someone achieve their goals.