Executive coaches deal with diverse subjects, and also encounter some recurring themes. One common theme is giving tough feedback to staff members who are not performing as well as the client believes they can. While giving and receiving positive feedback is easy, delivering and accepting tough feedback is difficult. So difficult, it seems, avoidance is too often a typical approach.
The trouble with adopting an “avoidance” approach to giving tough feedback is that no one gains—the leader is disappointed and loses confidence in the employee; the employee doesn’t get the benefit of feedback to learn and progress; and the organization misses out on employee development—all because a leader resists addressing areas that need improvement. As the saying goes, what we resist persists.
Therefore, the vital leadership skill of delivering tough feedback in a constructive manner is critical to developing employees and building strong organizations. Helping clients work through and own the challenge of giving feedback and managing performance is an area where I’ve found role-play is a very effective coaching tool. It provides excellent structure for preparing clients to convey their message as intended.
Consider this example: An employee misses the mark on a particular goal or assignment. The leader/client believes the employee is someone who adds value and can grow in the organization, but meeting with the employee to address the concern keeps getting postponed because, well, giving tough feedback is hard. Hence, avoidance.
My years as an HR Leader and as a Coach have shown me that feedback is most effective when it is given timely—not three to six months later in a scheduled review. People typically value positive feedback and accept constructive feedback when they believe their manager has their growth and career interests in mind. They also want to be part of the solution, so engaging them in the improvement process is integral. As I set up the role-play exercise on giving feedback, I share these insights with my client.
I also guide my client in establishing context for the feedback by asking questions: What do you want for the staff member? How can the employee gain by getting this feedback? What will it mean for your organization if providing the right feedback and coaching can improve the staff member’s performance? How can you get the employee involved in suggesting improvements? What will it mean for you when the employee has future success based on receiving constructive feedback?
After emphasizing that feedback needs to be delivered in a timely manner and working with the client to define the context for the exchange, I ask additional questions to prepare my client for the feedback session by drawing on personal experience. Examples of such questions are: What was the best feedback you received when an assignment didn’t go as planned? What did you experience in that feedback session? How did you grow from it? How were you part of the solution? How would you adapt what you learned from that experience to make it most beneficial to the person to whom you need to provide constructive feedback now?
Having primed the client, our role-play begins. Assuming the role of staff member, I knock and say, “I’m here for our one-on-one discussion.” I participate as if I am the employee getting the feedback; I may give alternate responses to prepare the client for varying scenarios. The process typically takes just 10 to 15 minutes. Then, we debrief: How did that go for you? What surprised you? What did you learn? and so on.
When I conduct this type of role-play exercise on giving tough feedback, I find that the client’s attitude shifts from apprehension to greater confidence. The client becomes ready to own the meeting with the employee, commits to take action and to update me on the outcome.
Clients who are coached through this process and start using this skill become more capable leaders. Their team members benefit from feedback that helps them develop. The resulting synergy helps the organization grow stronger.
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Lance Hazzard, CPCC, ACC, is an executive coach helping people and organizations successfully achieve what’s next. He is Executive Coach and President at Oppnå® Executive & Achievement Coaching. Find out more about Lance and Oppnå® Coaching at oppnacoaching.com