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Coach's Corner--June 16, 2008

Use empathy, clarity to get employee to accept feedback

The Client
Name: Pat
Age: 42
Title: Small-business owner
Time with company: 8 years
Industry: Business services
Issue: Providing direct and open feedback
Q. What do I do about an employee who can’t accept any even slightly negative feedback? For example, I’ve been accused of “harassing” him for requiring that all documents be edited for grammar and spelling errors before being sent to an outside recipient. How can I turn this around so that someone who is otherwise talented can be retained rather than fired?

A. When you encounter this type of wall, try to understand and overcome the resistance to feedback while making sure that the consequences of poor performance are clear. This way, you’ll be fair to both the employee and your organization.

The inner game
First, take a candid look at yourself. Are you sending any verbal or nonverbal messages that could be hindering communication? Take time to understand your own emotions, such as accumulated frustration. Unaddressed, they could derail your attempts to approach the employee with a fresh perspective. Also, assess your organizational culture — if it is punitive about errors, it may be harder to turn this employee around.

Then, focus on the employee’s personality and style. Try to empathize with his resistance to feedback and need to always be right. Look at what fears, anxieties, or experiences may reinforce this dynamic. This isn’t to excuse him from receiving feedback; your goal is to deliver it in a way he’ll be more apt to hear.

Finally, clarify your hopes for this employee. Define your view of his talents, and think through how the specific feedback he needs will fit into his overall prospects for the future.

The outer game
Lay the groundwork for providing feedback by having a conversation when there is no specific incident to address. Schedule time to meet with the employee, perhaps over coffee, but in a place where you can talk openly. If the relationship has broken down substantially, consider inviting a neutral third party to increase the sense of safety for both of you. If the employee already feels harassed, this will protect him. Likewise, you’ll have a witness if the situation deteriorates.

Plan the conversation, anticipating concerns and reactions, and taking some time to get yourself centered and calm. A few minutes of deep breathing can help.

Then, ask about the employee’s career goals and hopes, and his view of his performance. This is the time to talk about how shortfalls in performance can hold employees back. Discuss your concerns about your lack of success in providing feedback in the past. Ask for information on effective ways for you to provide feedback, reminding the employee that it is part of your job, both from the quality of work perspective and your role in promoting team members’ growth.

Finally, be clear that there are expectations for good performance, and that you prefer to be partners in ensuring that they are met, but that the expectations are not going to slide.

The last word
Direct but compassionate communication may be effective in opening feedback channels with this employee. It will also send a message to others that accountability is taken seriously, and that all employees have a chance to succeed if they are willing to pay attention to constructive feedback.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted June 16, 2008
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