Receiving difficult feedback from your team

Looking up at a pair of joshua trees

Last week we looked at a framework for delivering feedback with clarity and equity. Now let’s examine the other side of the coin and talk about one of the toughest kinds of work conversation: when a report needs to tell you about something you’re doing (or not doing) that’s having a negative impact on the team.

When your team members tell you candidly about things that you need to improve personally, it’s important for you to model the way you want constructive feedback to be received. Often, the first time a team member gives you this kind of feedback, they’re feeling pretty vulnerable; they might trust you generally, but don’t know how you’re going to react to this, so being candid about what needs to change can feel like a professional or personal risk. You want them to feel supported in that vulnerability, and for them to understand that this was a risk worth taking.

My own mantra about this is “don’t take it personally; do take it seriously.” I even repeat this to myself before responding to criticism. This is easy to say, but it’s very difficult not to take feedback about your work personally. As I’ve talked about before on this blog, we live in a work culture where our personal – even moral – value is often equated with how much we work, and how hard we work. This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, it makes it difficult to separate your fundamental worth as a person from your need to improve at some particular task or your need to pay more attention to some particular thing. That may sound overstated, but in many cases it’s what it feels like to receive negative feedback at work.

To help keep those feelings from getting the best of you during the conversation, I find it useful to return to start thinking about it in terms of the feedback structure we talked about in the last post. When you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback from your direct reports, you have an opportunity to reinforce your feedback structure, and to use it to help establish the parameters for how this difficult conversation proceeds. Just as you would try to do when delivering difficult feedback, you want your report to describe what the behavior they’ve seen is, tell you what the impact of the behavior is on them/their teammates, and if they’re clear on what they’d like to have happen in order to resolve the issue, make a request.

If you don’t fully understand the behavior they’re describing, its impact, and the request that’s being made of you, ask clarifying questions once your report seems done sharing what they’ve had to say. Practice approaching your questions from a place of curiosity instead of defensiveness. Framing them with “help me understand…” or “can you say more about…” can remind you of the tone you want to set and help you focus on the end goal of the conversation, which is identifying the areas in which you need to improve. Asking these questions before offering any reasons or justifications for your actions can also help reduce real or perceived feelings of defensiveness. If it feels appropriate, go ahead and offer context when you’ve demonstrated that you understand the impact of your actions, particularly if your report is asking you to change behavior that needs to remain in place for a specific reason.

Receiving difficult feedback about someone else

If you have more than one direct report, it’s also important to encourage candid communication among your team members, and to understand when it’s important for you to step in during a potential conflict. If Colleague A comes to you with a concern about the behavior or work of Colleague B, there are a couple of questions for you to consider:

• Are you the right person to deliver this feedback to Colleague B? Sometimes, receiving difficult feedback from a third party can trigger feelings of defensiveness – the person receiving the feedback ends up focusing on “why didn’t A just tell me themselves?” rather than on the behavior they need to adjust.

• Is this feedback really for Colleague B, or is it for you? It may be the case that your team members don’t have accurate expectations around each other’s job responsibilities, and it’s your job to help make that clear.

If you think the feedback is something that Colleague B needs to hear, and that Colleague A could reasonably/safely approach B about it directly, go ahead and ask: “is that something you’d feel comfortable talking to B about directly?” Often, the answer will be yes, and the report may have come to you because they were unsure about protocol or worried about overstepping boundaries. Make it clear that even though you’re encouraging them to have that conversation, it’s good that they brought the concern to you, because sometimes that feedback really is for you and not the other person.

In many cases, Colleague A may just need to hear a little encouragement and permission to provide that direct feedback to Colleague B. Remind them of your feedback structure as a way to guide them through the conversation; if they haven’t brought the concern to you already formulated in terms of behavior-impact-question/request, work though the structure with them to make sure they can do that before sending them off to talk to Colleague B.

If the person reporting the behavior wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it directly with their colleague, you’ve got a little more digging to do. In this kind of situation, the person reporting the issue to you is not responsible for coming up with a specific request for how the issue gets addressed. You need them to tell you about the behavior and its impact; following the rest of the feedback process is your responsibility.

If the issue is more along the lines of a serious concern about the individual’s job performance, you’re likely the right person to handle the feedback conversation. If at all possible, keep the name/role of the person who reported the behavior confidential; if you can’t reasonably provide the feedback while maintaining confidentiality with Colleague A, make sure to tell A that before you talk with Colleague B.

Maintaining your curiosity and your commitment to using consistent, structured feedback when you’re on the receiving end will help build trust with your team. You’ll need that trust to get through the current moment of uncertainty, and it will serve you well as the world continues to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Note: In situations where the behavior being reported is harassment, or potentially illegal, you may need to rope in human resources, your board, or another oversight authority (up to and including your organization’s legal counsel, your local or state employment commission, or if you’re in the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, depending on the severity of the issue) to identify next steps. If you’re not sure about your situation or what the right course of action is, WorkplaceFairness.org may be a good place to start learning more.

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