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Putting off difficult conversations with staff? Here’s how to give constructive feedback respectfully and keep your relationships intact. By Angela Tufvesson
When you’re the boss, giving staff both positive and less-than-positive feedback to improve performance and productivity is an important part of the job. Sharing good news is easy but dishing out negative assessments is often put into the too-hard basket. Worried giving constructive feedback will be awkward, confrontational and put your personal relationships at risk? You’re certainly not alone.
“We struggle with even the language and the label of negative feedback, which is why we’ve reframed it as ‘constructive’ feedback,” says psychologist Yasmin Schaefer from organisational psychology firm Aspect Group. “There are a lot of internal barriers as to why we’d rather not go there.”
Bosses are human, too, and one of the most powerful obstacles to delivering constructive feedback is a fear that you’ll upset the other person, says Schaefer. “Leaders sometimes feel like they don’t want to destroy the positive relationships they have with their staff—especially in small businesses. They want to be liked and they don’t want to play bad cop.”
Gillian Porter, human resources director at VetPartners, says dedicated, close-knit teams can make delivering constructive feedback an even more intimidating prospect in vet practices.
“Our employees are really passionate and engaged in the industry, and they really see this as not just a job,” she says. “They want to know they’re making a difference to the lives of pets and pet owners, which makes people even more nervous about giving feedback in a veterinary environment.”
But here’s the thing: letting problem behaviours like a poor phone manner or habitual tardiness slide has a direct impact on individual performance. “What can happen is that the problem compounds and continues if we don’t provide corrective feedback,” says Schaefer. “Sometimes, if staff don’t hear any feedback at all, they assume they’re doing well, which reinforces the issue.”
And there are flow-on effects for team cohesiveness and morale. “It’s potentially upsetting for other staff if they feel like another person isn’t abiding by the rules or doing the right thing,” says Schaefer. “They may get resentful that the leader isn’t addressing the inappropriate behaviour or lower performance.”
Get constructive feedback right, however, and you’re setting your staff up for success. Schaefer says constructive feedback is “absolutely essential” to every employee’s ongoing development. “It clarifies expectations, helps people learn from their mistakes and builds their confidence.”
Setting up a culture of constructive feedback also helps to improve staff engagement and retention, explains Jodie Fowler from HR Central. “You may have six people in your practice, and if there’s a problem with one person it affects everybody else. When people see that the practice is taking some action and there’s been some improvement, they feel much more comfortable in the workplace.”
Delivering the goods
So what’s the most effective and least awkward way to deliver constructive feedback? First, act as soon as you notice an issue—and ensure the conversation is private. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the first five minutes, but if something happens there should be a debrief about it as soon as possible,” says Fowler.
She recommends providing concrete examples of problem behaviours and situations and avoiding vague generalisations. “Describing what you’ve observed is one of the key things to keep the conversation from getting too personal. You might say, ‘I saw you interrupt someone four times in a meeting today’ or ‘I have just checked your piece of work, and this is what I’m concerned about’. It has to be specific.”
Using neutral language is another effective strategy, says Schaefer. “‘You’re being really slack’ or ‘You’re always rocking up late’ is very judgmental language. If you instead say, ‘I’ve noticed the last three times you’ve been about five minutes late to the starting time of the meeting’, that’s very objective—you’re not labelling and you’re not assuming their intent. You’re just putting the behaviour out there and having a conversation.”
Giving your staff member time to process and respond to the conversation is ideal preparation for the final step: finding a solution. “When it comes to the behaviour you’d rather see, use positive language,” says Schaefer. “You might say, ‘It would be really helpful for the rest of the team if we were all ready to start on time. What do you think it’s going to take to make that happen?’ You’re framing the solution as something positive and exploring that together.”
Fowler suggests finishing the conversation with a summary of the actions you’ve agreed on. “This helps people understand you’ve addressed a problem and aren’t picking on them.”
She also says it’s important to be kind to yourself and take some time to debrief, especially if the feedback you delivered was particularly constructive. “These conversations are sometimes not comfortable. But if you do them properly, they can become a lot easier and a lot more comfortable for everyone involved.”
Ultimately, Porter says such conversations should be part of an overall culture of open communication. “If staff only ever hear from their manager when they’re getting negative feedback, it can impact the relationship. It’s important to create an environment where no-one’s going to be surprised if you pull them aside to have a chat.”