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Master the Feedback Balancing Act

Great leaders take an active role in helping their employees grow. A major part of that process? They’ve learned to master the feedback balancing act:  providing just the right combination of cold, hard truth and sincere compassion. Course correction with encouragement. Constructive criticism with praise.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is one of the leaders who understands the inherent value of that process. Sandberg provided that blend of perfectly balanced feedback to former employee Kim Scott, who believes this approach contributed to her success. Scott (who went on to hold executive positions with Google, Apple and Twitter) explained the tangible impact of that “radical candor” in a recent video.

So why do managers struggle with this? Why are they afraid to be radically candid? Here are six typical reasons.

  1. They were never given direct feedback, so they don’t know what it sounds like.

  2. They tried that approach once, and it wasn’t effective.

  3. They don’t have the experience to communicate in that way.

  4. They use their “poor soft skills” as an excuse.

  5. They think employees will figure things out on their own.

  6. They fear what may happen if they are direct.

Tough to overcome? Perhaps. But’s it’s possible. According to Scott, managers can deliver powerful feedback when they provide employees with a real challenge but also come from a place of caring. They key is avoiding three common missteps.

  1. Caring without challenge is ineffective.

Employees can’t make improvements if they don’t know what to change.

“I know you are trying so hard. That client can be really high maintenance. I’m sorry you have to deal with all of those issues.”

  1. Challenge without caring can be hurtful.

  2. Employees can’t focus on improving if they are given feedback in a way that leaves them crying in the corner.

“You are getting terrible reports about your communication with the client. They are so unhappy. You are failing on every level. Fix it now. Or else…”

  1. Ignoring the problem leaves everyone in the dark.

Some bosses say nothing and hope workers will get the message on their own. Employees are left wondering and second-guessing about their performance. Then they’re completely blindsided when they get fired or passed over for a promotion. It’s a huge loss of potential talent—and a downright shame.

If you’re an employee with a boss who uses the “ignoring” tactic, you can always ask for feedback in a specific way. Here’s an example.

Move beyond “how did I do on the presentation?” Dig in and ask for details.

“What went well in my presentation?

“How effective was it?”

“Did I speak too quickly or too slowly?”

“Did I seem relaxed?”

“How were my presentation skills overall?”

“Am I improving?”

“What would you recommend that I do differently the next time?”

By showing that you welcome feedback (positive and negative), you’ll begin helping your manager to get comfortable with the process. You deserve to know how your boss rates your performance. In fact, your career could be in jeopardy if you don’t know.

In contrast to the faulty tactics, a balanced feedback approach sounds something like this:

“I’m concerned about your low scores on the client satisfaction survey. I know you can do better. Let’s brainstorm on some ways you might communicate more effectively and improve those numbers.”

The impact is vastly different.

I know from my years leading managers in global positions that employees truly appreciate sincere, direct feedback. It’s affirming to know that someone cares enough to tell them about a problem. They are typically grateful for the honesty and—even more important—the conversations often produce stronger relationships and better results. Nice incentive, right?

The feedback balancing act is never easy, but it’s always worth it. For those of you who manage others, I hope you’ll remember the winning formula:  challenge directly and care personally.

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