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Straight Talk: Communicating Feedback

None of us wants to bring a behavior problem to the attention of an employee, whether we are the individual’s manager or mentor.

When you must sit down with a staff member or mentee to discuss a problem in performance, keep the following in mind:

  • Be clear about what you want to say.
  • Begin with the positive. Looking at the positive will make it easier for the protégé to hear about the areas for improvement.
  • Be specific. Avoid generalizations and clarify pronouns such as it, that, and the like.
  • Focus on behavior rather than on the person.
  • Refer to the behavior that can be changed. Don’t try to change that which is not changeable.
  • Be descriptive rather than evaluative.
  • Own the feedback. Have the courage to use “I” statements.
  • Avoid the following words: always, never, all.
  • • Don’t give advice. Most people won’t listen. Rather, help the individual come to a better understanding of an issue and how to address it more effectively.

Keep in mind that your approach can anger your protégé. Your goal in giving feedback is to have your opinion heard and your suggestions followed. Your protégé will tend to resist feedback—even argue—when you:

  • Provide unsolicited advice. Even if your role as a coach or mentor is to give advice, you should wait until you are asked for it.
  • Appear to want to blame rather than fix.
  • Offer reassurances that are not based on reality. Don’t promise that an improvement in a given behavior will guarantee promotion, for example.
  • Don’t talk after you ask a question. Give your protégé an opportunity to answer. While too much silence is dangerous, silence itself can be golden, encouraging your mentee to respond.
  • Think before you ask your question. Consider the goal of your question and ask yourself if the reply will take you in the direction in which you want the conversation to go.
  • Don’t lead the protégé. That’s not for you to do. All you will get are the answers you want to hear, not the honest answers that will move your protégé or employee forward in achieving the development goals on which you have agreed.
  • Don’t expect rapport between you and your staff member immediately. Back off and give him or her an opportunity to communicate thoughts. Good friends develop the kind of rapport that allows each to complete the sentence of the other. It can take many months, even years, as a coach or mentor to someone to gain that kind of relationship. Start slowly.

Finally, here are some tips about the quality of the feedback you offer:

Provide real-time feedback. Tie your remarks to recent assignments or experiences, not to a what happened months ago.

  • Keep in mind that the only feedback that is useful is about behavior that can be changed. Don’t succumb to the temptation to evaluate the mentee. Ask, “What impact would that behavior have on the project’s success” or say to your protégé, “Your supervisor would look at your behavior as….”
  • Be sure you understand what happened. Listen actively. Clarify and summarize. “If I understand what you said…,” or “Help me to understand what happened.”