How to Overcome the Anxiety of Delivering Tough Feedback

Written by Scaleocity

On July 1, 2022

Delivering feedback… for some readers, just clicking the title of this blog post may have been enough to give you a slight trickle of anxiety. While some leaders naturally feel comfortable giving direct, honest feedback to their direct reports, that isn’t the norm. Most managers actually prefer to not give corrective feedback, even though as we’ve previously discussed, employees favor receiving it.

Think about the last time you had to have a conversation that you knew had the potential to go poorly due to challenging feedback you were delivering. How did you feel beforehand? What did you do to prepare? How did it go? If you felt like your nerves got the best of you and prevented a strong delivery of your message, you’re not alone.

Luckily, like all things, the skill of delivering feedback is like a muscle, and the more you flex it, the stronger it gets. Practice and preparation can help to ensure a productive and positive conversation. This post will provide a 6-step process to help you deliver constructive, actionable feedback in a stress-free manner.

Step 1: Plan in advance

This strategy can help with many situations you may be nervous for – prepare your thoughts in advance and ensure you have a plan for how to proceed. Outline the conversation, including the major topics you want to ensure your employee understands. Leave room for flexibility, but anticipate some potential outcomes to plan your response.

Within your key points, come up with a list of facts and examples to illustrate your point. Avoid providing a laundry list of endless negative feedback, but do provide specific examples that will explain to the employee the behavior that requires correction. Also, provide examples of the outcome you would’ve preferred to have seen. Finally, review your list to double-check for opinions or extrapolations – this should purely be behavior-based, factual representations of gaps in performance.

Step 2: Reframe the conversation mentally

Now that the conversation is planned, prepare yourself mentally for the conversation. Reframing the conversation in your own mind can help to reduce your anxiety, and help you enter the conversation in the best mindset for a productive conversation.

There are several “affirmations” or reframing thoughts that you can remind yourself of prior to beginning the conversation. Read through them all, but focus on the one or two that resonate the most with your specific situation:

1. Your ultimate goal is to help, not hurt, your employee. Providing this feedback is in the best interest of both your employee and your team overall.
2. Your team member will appreciate your honesty. They may be unaware of their performance gap, and hearing the feedback will help them to take steps to correct it and improve.
3. It is your job as a leader to provide feedback if a team member is not performing. This helps ensure that all team members are treated equally, and that the team can count on each other to pull their own weight.
4. You cannot hold someone accountable to something you’ve never told them. Delivering feedback the first time is a first step to continued follow-up and measurement of progress to ensure accountability over time.
5. Everyone has the potential to operate with a growth mindset, and as a leader, you can lead your team with this mindset. Individuals with growth mindsets believe and understand that they are capable of change and improvement, not stuck in a predetermined set of traits that can’t be changed.
6. Offering feedback provides a chance for continued follow-up, which will result in an opportunity for positive recognition.

Step 3: Start the conversation by asking questions

Start the conversation with a temperature check by asking the employee questions first:
● If the feedback is related to a specific task or project, ask them how they feel it went.
● If it is related to their job performance overall, check in on how they’re feeling about their current responsibilities and role within the team.
This will help you to gauge whether the employee has a sense of awareness of their performance gap. Listening to your employee’s perspective will also help you to provide better, more balanced feedback.

If the employee indicates a gap in their performance, and provides some examples of where they haven’t met expectations, it will be easier for you to add on with your own examples and talk to them about potential reasons for the challenges. However, be aware that the employee may not indicate a gap in their performance. There are multiple possibilities for this:
● The employee may have their own anxiety about admitting to their mistakes or failures
● The employee may truly be unaware that they are not meeting expectations. However, note that a study by leadership development consultants Zenger/Folkman found that 74% of employees who received constructive feedback already knew there was a problem.

In either one of these scenarios, it will be helpful for you to recognize their unwillingness to identify their performance gap prior to initiating your feedback delivery, knowing that you may need to be very direct in providing examples while also ensuring sensitivity to their perception of the feedback.

Step 4: Set expectations and provide specific feedback

When you begin providing feedback, set expectations for the conversation early on. Provide specific, direct feedback based on the behaviors you’ve observed and the list you created in Step 1. As you discuss, check for understanding by asking questions to ensure the employee understands what you’re describing.

Ensure that the employee understands not only what you are saying, but what you are not saying, to ensure that the employee is not overemphasizing the negative or catastrophizing the scenario. For example, reiterate to the employee that you feel they have not been performing to their potential, not that they lack the ability to meet expectations.

Step 5: Work together to action plan

Ensure that the meeting includes time for creating an action plan that helps the employee feel they will be able to be successful. Work on this action plan together, but allow the employee to take the lead as much as they seem capable to do so. The action plan will be their responsibility to complete, so they should be comfortable with what goes into it.

However, do offer resources, including your own time and expertise, to help within the action plan as needed. Ensure the employee is adequately supported to improve. Your action plan should have built in follow-up and metrics for reporting improvement. This will allow you a simple mechanism for accountability and ensuring your employee is progressing as you’d hope and expect.

Step 6: Check for understanding

Before concluding, ask your employee for their main takeaways from the conversation. This serves a few purposes:

1. It ensures they understand the feedback that you delivered, and the action plan for progressing.
2. It ensures the employee hasn’t catastrophized the conversation into a worst case scenario.
3. It level sets the employee’s understanding of next steps and potential for improvement, and provides you a chance for course correction or refinement as needed.

While this process may not turn tough conversations into your favorite activity, it should help to alleviate some of the anxiety from the situation, and ensure that your conversations are productive and actionable. For even more progress and comfort in delivering tough feedback, build a culture of accountability in your organization, and ensure you’re accustomed to providing feedback to your team quickly. Once feedback is the norm, it will feel less uncomfortable both to deliver, and to receive.

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One actionable tip on hiring employee #1 and beyond, the steps to build your Proactive HR system, and how to develop a high-performing team to help successfully grow your business.

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