Giving constructive feedback to an employee or colleague can be frightening. Will they get angry or defensive? Will they yell or give me the silent treatment? If you’ve ever worried about people reacting badly to your tough feedback, you’re not alone.
Three out of four people say that when they give constructive feedback, the recipient gets angry or defensive, according to research cited in my forthcoming book Truth At Work: The Science Of Delivering Tough Messages. I also detail new research showing that nine out of 10 employees have avoided confronting a co-worker about inappropriate behavior, even when a customer or the organization suffered as a result. And eight out of 10 managers have avoided confronting a subordinate about inappropriate behavior.
While the fear of bad reactions is real, the unfortunate consequence is that many leaders give constructive feedback that is so soft that recipients completely miss the message.
Striking the right balance with feedback
Effective, constructive feedback maintains a delicate balance. When feedback is too harsh, recipients shut down emotionally, get defensive, and fail to hear a word you say. When criticism is too soft, recipients fail to hear the message that they really do need to change.
It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and a minority of leaders strike it effectively. And while I’ve historically found more instances of managers delivering criticism that’s too harsh, lately I’m seeing a problem with criticism that’s too soft.
I recently conducted a three-question quiz that assessed how over 2,600 leaders deliver constructive feedback. One of the questions asked respondents to indicate which statement best represented them, out of these four possible choices:
- Employees need to know the cut-and-dried facts about whether their performance was bad,
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