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Empathy, Clarity the Keys to Delivering Feedback

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By Liz Reyer

RISMEDIA, June 30, 2008-(MCT)-Q. What do I do about an employee who can’t accept even slightly negative feedback? 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.

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 his 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 accept positively.

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.

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 in your role in promoting team members’ growth.

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

Direct but compassionate communication may be effective in opening feedback channels with this employee. It also will 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 is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.

© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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