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Delivering Critical Feedback to Difficult Personalities

Posted by Murphy, Mark at Tuesday, 12/18/2012 12:22 pm
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2.6 from 8 votes
A Q&A with CEO Mark Murphy

Q: In a Leadership IQ study, 80% of managers said they’ve avoided giving tough feedback because they were afraid of the reaction that they were going to get. What can managers do?

MM: There’s a lot you can do, especially around what you say and how and when you say it. One technique that every manager can put into effect immediately is to avoid three trigger words. They set most people off, and they provide great opportunity for any employee looking to negatively veer the conversation off course.

The first word is “Never.” When people hear the boss say something like, “You’re never on time for meetings,” it tends to kick off an adrenaline response that makes people defensive. And that means instead of the rational and constructive dialogue you want to have, you hear, “Oh, yeah? Well, how about that time three years ago when I was 20 minutes early for a meeting? Huh? How about that?” At that point, the walls of defensiveness are way up, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get them back down. You may as well just cancel the conversation.

“Always” is another word that causes defensiveness, and it prompts emotional responses that are also difficult and time consuming to diffuse. You’ll hear things like, “I can find plenty of examples where I was on time. Like last year when I was ten minutes early and I brought the donuts.” Someone once told me: “always and never are two words you should always remember never to use,” and it’s sound advice. Both these words are just too emotionally intense and preclude any nuance or subtlety.

The third trigger word to avoid, and there are plenty of others, these are just three of the big ones, is “You.” In conversation, especially feedback conversations, the word “You” is very often stated something like, “You need to stop coming late to meetings” or “You need to be better at getting to meetings on time.” Attacks and criticism so commonly follow the word “you” that people just naturally tense-up when they hear the word.

The key to avoiding trigger words is to stick to a style of communication called “fact-based communication.” This is where you only use words that are candid, objective, specific, timely and unemotional. In the example I used earlier, the facts could sound like this, “Bob, you were 15 minutes late to today’s meeting.” That’s an observable and verifiable fact, and it’s going to be a lot harder for Bob to rush in and tell you that you’re attacking him when all you present are the facts.

Q: What is considered “timely” when giving feedback?

MM: The facts tend to be very timely, so, by definition, I mean as it happens, or just after it happens. Because if we let this stuff build up for six months, now we’re trying to give a person feedback on everything they did wrong in that extended time period. And that’s a ridiculously difficult conversation to have, whether it’s with a high or low performer, and they both want and require frequent feedback. Waiting also leaves managers wide open to the kinds of errors that any of your difficult attitudes, your low performers, are just waiting to have happen so they can try and exploit it to their benefit.

When we localize these conversations as things happen, as mistakes and such are made, they become very small conversations that tend to be easier to have and that produce a lot less negative reaction. So, again, the more items, the more constructive changes you are asking the person to make, the harder the conversion becomes. You also want to avoid “feeling words” wherever you can. The more emotional the language, especially if it’s a negative emotion, as it often is in these cases, the more difficult the feedback conversation becomes.

Q: Do you have any tips for remaining unemotional, especially when talking to people who are looking to stir up trouble?

MM: You have to remember that most difficult employees have had a lifetime of practice at derailing conversations that focus on their bad attitudes. They are really good at it. So managers need to make sure they keep their faculties in order. One technique that is really useful is the H.A.L.T. approach. If you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired, postpone the meeting for 15 minutes, or however long you need. Go have a salad or a snickers bar or a cup of coffee, or fake a trip to the restroom. Whatever it is you have to do to collect yourself and get yourself in the right frame of mind. And if you’re in a meeting that is going wrong, stop it and reschedule it for a later time. And if you suspect it will get ugly again, ask someone from HR to be there too.

Q: What if you accidentally use one of the trigger words, or you say something that hints at your true level of frustration. The conversation has taken a downward turn, but it still seems salvageable. How do you get the conversation back on track?

MM: Everyone slips up occasionally and says the wrong thing. Most times you can get right back on track by using this really simple A.D.S. script:

Apologize: “I’m sorry”(that’s all you have to say).
Disarm and explain yourself: “I messed up and chose some bad words that sounded like I was attacking you which is not what I intended.”
Step back:“Can I try this again?”

Most folks are going to give you a pass. But don’t push your luck. Speaking so people, especially low performers, stay open to listening takes committed practice. It should be second nature.

Q: What about softening the truth; making difficult feedback easier for employees to hear? Does that help make these challenging conversations less painful?

MM: First, let me talk about what NOT to do here. One of the worst management techniques ever invented is what I call the Compliment Sandwich. It’s a way of trying to criticize somebody without making them feel bad. Basically, you give somebody a compliment, and then you criticize them, and then you close with another compliment. This is commonly done by a lot of managers.

Imagine you’re Frank, and your boss has just called you in for a little feedback: “Frank, you’re a world-class programmer, the absolute best. You’re probably the smartest guy in the department. You’ve been pretty nasty during our weekly meetings, and it’s causing some hurt feelings. But I’m saying all this because you’re just so darn talented that I want to see you really flourish here.”

If I’m Frank, I just heard: “I’m great, I’m smart” waa waa waa waa “I’m great, I’m smart.”

Frank heard some compliments, then Charlie Brown’s teacher, then some more compliments. But he certainly didn’t hear anything about his job being in jeopardy or even that his performance is anything other than great. Not only is the Compliment Sandwich message completely disingenuous, but no one remembers what happens in the middle. Get your message out there in plain sight, because if it isn’t being heard, you aren’t doing anything to resolve the problem.

If you’re really afraid that blatant candor about somebody’s performance will shut down the conversation, you can always use a Softening Statement; one that won’t mask your message. Try saying something like, “Frank, I’ve got a tough message to deliver. There’s no getting around it, but I want you to understand that I’m doing this out of a concern for your wellbeing. Because if you don’t fix this stuff, your career here is in jeopardy.” This softens the blow while enforcing the message: you really need to listen to this constructive feedback.

Anybody can talk about the fun stuff, but only truly great leaders, 100% Leaders, can effectively speak the truth about the sensitive topics without alienating people. Attend “Transforming the Passive-Aggressive Culture” and learn how to create a more courageous, open and accountable culture where defense mechanisms are kept at bay and even difficult employees are inspired to reach their full potential.

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