Making Awkward Feedback Easier

Whether you’re a new manager or veteran executive, there’s a certain kind of employee conversation that never seems to get any easier. I’m sure you’ve been faced with it: An employee has a behavior, habit, or mannerism that’s giving people the wrong impression of her or diminishing her effectiveness. It’s not a performance issue, but it affects how the employee is perceived. And she probably doesn’t even realize she’s engaging in it.

I’ve worked with clients who dread these conversations and put them off. They’re worried that their feedback will be misunderstood, that they might damage the relationship or create needless drama. To help them take action, I remind them that as difficult as this kind of feedback can be to deliver, they are offering it out of genuine concern for the employee and a desire to help her succeed.

Here are three simple steps that can make these conversations easier.

1. Start with your intent

Remember that you’re having this conversation because you care about the employee and want to help her remove an obstacle that’s holding her back. You can always acknowledge that this is an awkward situation for both of you, but that it’s important to talk about the behavior. If you were in her shoes, you would want to hear the feedback. Expressing compassion and your own vulnerability can create a stronger connection in the moment and may help defuse the tension.

2. Communicate the impact

Help the employee understand her behavior by identifying it, providing information on when and where you’ve noticed it occurring, and sharing its impact. For example, maybe her sour expression surfaces primarily in long meetings with a key stakeholder group. Talk about the effect, from what you see or what you’ve heard from others. “I know this isn’t what you intend, but I’ve heard others say that your facial expressions sometimes leave them with the impression that you are resistant to their ideas.”

3. Be part of the solution

Offer ideas about what she should do more or less of. Sometimes it can be very powerful to ask the employee to focus on how she wants to show up in the interaction. In other words, by helping her identify what she does want others to notice or take away from their interaction with her (e.g., openness to ideas), she may stop engaging in the other limiting behavior.

After that, it’s a matter of finding tactics that work for her. That could mean using a visual reminder like a note with the word “open” on it, so she can see it during her meeting and pay more attention to her body language. If an employee is receptive to it, offer to help her monitor the behavior. That could involve giving a cue when the employee starts to engage in the distracting behavior during a meeting or setting aside time for feedback after the meeting.

This week, consider whether there’s an awkward conversation you’ve been putting off and decide how you will approach it with the mindset of helping your employee succeed. While it may be a difficult moment for both of you in the short term, ultimately you will find that it strengthens your relationship and builds trust in the long run. Remember, small steps lead to big results.