Over the course of her HR career, Eileen Habelow estimates that she spent 80 percent of her time coaching managers and leaders on how to have difficult conversations. As the president of Leadership-Link, a Boston-based consulting firm that works with small and midsize companies, she frequently fields requests from clients who want to create better feedback systems. Because these companies deal with complex issues in a rapidly changing environment, it is important that mistakes to be recognized and corrected in real time so that they don’t harden into bad habits and workplace conflict.
“If your goal is to get the most out of people,” Habelow said, “you have to be willing to give direct, difficult feedback. It’s not a bad thing. You’re doing them a service.”
Along with a coaching and guidance mindset, Habelow provided the following suggestions for those who want to get better at delivering direct feedback:
- Begin by clarifying your objectives. What do you want to accomplish in this conversation?
- Script out the beginning and the end of the conversation.
- Try to anticipate how the information will be received along with your own reaction to any response.
- Negative feedback should be specifically focused on recognizable behaviors that can be changed rather than on personality traits or vague generalizations.
“You have to be specific about behavior you have observed and the impact it is having on others, and provide some guidance moving forward,” she said.
She related a particularly tough set of conversations she had with a high-performing employee whose approach was perceived as overly direct and extremely demanding (or, in radical candor terms, obnoxiously aggressive). “He accomplished much but always left damaged relationships behind and had a reputation for caring only about the business and not the people that he worked with,”said Habelow.
Initially he was quite defensive. But she got through to him by offering him specific examples and observations of people with whom he now had strained relationships because of pushing too hard. Because he was very results-oriented, she focused on the impact of the strained relationships: People were slower to respond, only giving the bare minimum and not going above and beyond for him.
In challenging his approach, Habelow was able to persuade the employee to make small changes that resulted in more positive working It’s helpful to look at employees’ situations from their perspective, even if you disagree with them. But, avoid “compliment sandwiches” a criticism wedged between two compliments because the praise is likely to come across as contrived and insincere.