“I don’t feel comfortable confronting poor performance.”
I was talking to a group of newly promoted managers recently and this was their top concern. They wanted no part of having confronting employees on performance issues.
They’re not alone. It’s a common fear. In the many talks and management discussions I’ve hosted over the years, the need to give out negative feedback is one of the most dreaded responsibilities of leading and managing people.
It’s difficult to let people know we’re disappointed. Or that they fell short of our expectations. It creates an unpleasant situation. And we like things to be nice and pleasant. I get that.
And this isn’t reserved for management. It’s a common fear for everyone. We all hesitate to question or complain on the chance of offending and creating an awkward situation.
So we keep silent. We give people a pass. We rationalize that maybe they’re just having a bad day. Or it’s an isolated incident.
We tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
But problems rarely improve on their own. People don’t just start performing better. If anything, they get worse because they think that behavior is acceptable.
It’s selfish to stay quiet. To hold back the feedback that could help someone grow.
I could cite any number of studies that show the importance of feedback or that employees feel they’re being held back at work, but more importantly, ask yourself what would you want if the situation were reversed? Would you want someone to tell you what you want to hear, or what you need to hear?
As Ray Dalio wrote in Principles, “In order to be great, one can’t compromise the uncompromisable.”
If greatness is our goal, we can no longer keep this feedback to ourselves.
Feedback is Influence
“You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life.” – Zig Ziglar
In its simplest form, the purpose of feedback is to influence future behavior.
Positive feedback encourages someone to repeat a behavior. Negative feedback tells someone to not.
So for anyone who’s hoping to teach, develop, coach, or influence others, the ability to give feedback is a critical component.
We can either get over this aversion or recognize that our ability to positively influence others will be severely limited.
Influence Requires Trust
“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” – Zig Ziglar
I know this isn’t easy. We don’t want to upset people. We want people to like us.
But think back to a time when someone gave you advice that you took to heart. You didn’t get upset. You didn’t start disliking that person. Why? Because you knew they were looking out for your best interest.
You received it well because you knew it was well-intentioned. And chances are, you appreciated the honesty and desire to help you improve.
And therein lies the key. People appreciate criticism that’s delivered with their best interest in mind. Otherwise it’s brushed aside. Or argued and debated.
It’s why we take the advice of a trusted coach seriously but despise most criticism that’s delivered anonymously. Or from other drivers, conservative pundits, and every form of politician.
So before we can effectively give constructive feedback, we need to establish trust.
Build Trust with Positive Feedback
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Zig Ziglar
Who do you trust? It’s unlikely to be someone who only offers negative feedback. Who wants to spend time with someone who’s constantly critical?
A recent Harvard Business Review study measured management’s effectiveness against their tendency to provide negative and positive feedback. While most negative feedback managers viewed themselves as highly effective, their employees disagreed, consistently ranking them on the opposite end of the spectrum.
However, managers who gave out positive feedback were consistently ranked as much more effective.
People appreciate genuine positive feedback. It builds their confidence and gives them encouragement.
When you give someone positive encouragement, they realize that you’re looking out for their best interest. They recognize that you’re in their corner. You’re looking for them to succeed.
Unfortunately, positive feedback is often the first thing to go during busy times. We’re so quick to move on to the next challenge that we don’t take the time to let people know how much we appreciate their efforts.
And this is an incredible mistake. Not only do we miss out on the chance to raise people up, but we don’t build the trust necessary to make constructive feedback effective.
Business coach and author Aubrey Daniels recommends a 4 to 1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. For every piece of negative feedback we provide, we should be giving out 4 pieces of positive encouragement.
The good news is it’s not difficult. It’s just something we need to be mindful of.
The Basics of Positive Reinforcement
“Encouragement is the fuel on which hope runs.” – Zig Ziglar
There’s no prescription for offering encouraging feedback. There’s many ways of doing it, all good and effective.
But in my experience, there’s a couple points to keep in mind to make sure it has the desired effect.
Be Specific. Identify the specific behavior that you appreciate and want people to repeat. Caring enough to know the details goes a long way and builds credibility.
Be Involved. Show that you understand and appreciate the impact of their efforts. Bring it back to the company mission. Nothing builds engagement better.
Be Timely. The longer you wait, the less meaningful it will be. When you notice something good, let people know.
Be Frequent. As with any behavior, daily practice makes it habit. Don’t reserve your appreciation for annual reviews and exit interviews.
Be Sincere.As legendary coach Bill Walsh said,“Nothing is more effective than sincere, accurate praise, and nothing is more lame than a cookie-cutter compliment.”
“The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you think you can only do a little.” – Zig Ziglar
I get it. It’s daunting to give out negative feedback. But most people do want to excel. Most people do want to meet our expectations. Allowing them to continue falling short in ignorance is unfair and unethical.
If we’re looking to help people improve, we need to keep two things in mind. First, it’s much easier to correct small problems than large ones. So address them early. And second, feedback needs trust to be effective.
While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best ways to build this trust, and become more comfortable giving constructive suggestions, is to focus on positive feedback.
When we give positive feedback, people realize we’re prioritizing their development. We become their advocate. And we build that critical trust.
Then feedback becomes both less stressful and more effective. And we can be the leaders and the coaches that we’d all like to be.