Advice From The Nice Girl: How To Give Tough Feedback

Welcome to Refinery29’s career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Every month, readers can ask Fran Hauser, bonafide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, their hardest career quandaries, from managing your overly emotional boss to overcoming your biggest work fear. But this advice column comes with a twist — the reader has to take Fran’s advice and report back.
This month, we hear from a 30-year-old corporate accounting manager who's preparing for end-of-year performance reviews.
Question: I’m a first-time manager and need to do performance reviews in the new year. I have to give some tough feedback to one person on my team, and I’m really nervous. I don’t want to come across as too mean, but I also know its important that I be honest about what they need to work on. I don’t even know how to begin the conversation. Help!
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Fran's Advice: Giving feedback — especially critical feedback — is a struggle for so many managers, at every level! Early in my career, I avoided it at all costs. But then I realised that I was doing a disservice to people by not sharing honest feedback. As a manager, your responsibility is to help your team learn and grow. Once I was able to change my mindset and think of feedback as a powerful tool to help people improve on their skills and talents, it calmed my nerves. I also found a style of feedback that works best for me: kind and direct. Here are my four steps to giving empathetic feedback.
1. Frame it positively. First, you need to put the person at ease so they are more capable of listening and receiving the feedback. If you start the meeting with the “bad news” or come across as threatening in any way, you’ll immediately trigger the person’s defence emotions and they won’t be able to process anything you’re saying. It’s because of the amygdala, the part of the brain that turns on your body’s fight-or-flight response when it senses a threat. When activated, the amygdala sets off a cascade of hormonal reactions that cause you to become angry, want to run away, or shut down. To avoid this, start with some kind words and point out things the the team member is doing right. You also need to convey the feeling that you care about their professional development and that you are on their side. Use phrases like, “I’m your biggest champion,” or “I believe you have a very successful career in front of you and want to be helpful in any way I can.” Don’t use phrases like, “Here are some things we need to talk about,” or “Here are some areas I’m finding challenging for you.”
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2. Ask questions. I’ve found that asking carefully framed questions can often lead the other person to deliver their own feedback. Instead of saying, "What do you think you could have done differently?" say, "What do you think could have been done differently?" Dropping the "you" is a subtle shift that puts emphasis on the outcome, not the person, and can feel less personal and more productive. Focus on the facts and the behaviour you’d like to see in the future instead of making any emotional statements or blaming the other person for what has happened. Asking the team member how they think they performed can lead them to address some issues on their own and can evolve into a meaningful dialogue, without feeling like an attack.
3. Be specific about the person’s developmental areas. I once had a boss who was so nice, and her feedback was very wishy washy — I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I just ignored it. You don’t want that. Be clear and provide as much context as possible as to why addressing this challenge will be helpful to everyone. Here’s an example: My team member Liz once sent me a presentation draft but the formatting of the financial section was off. Instead of giving her a complaint, I presented the greater context. I said, “If your financials are misaligned or look sloppy, it can give people a lack of confidence in your numbers.” Once she understood why it was so important, she was happy to fix the formatting issues and was more careful about it in the future.
4. Develop shared next steps. End the conversation with an action plan that lists the specific things your direct report is going to do and what you are going to do to help. This will ensure that what you’ve said has sunk in and that they understand you are supporting them on their professional journey. You don’t want them to think this is a one and done conversation. Come up with a timeline; maybe that you are going to check in again in 30 days. Then really deliver on what you said you would do. For example, if the developmental area is that the person needs to be more collaborative and seek expertise and advice from others, your role may be introducing them to three new people in a certain field. Follow through on that, and soon you’ll both begin to see the positive benefit of a culture of feedback.
Tune in next month to hear back from our reader to see how the end-of-year reviews turned out.
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