performance review

5 ways to deliver bad news better

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We like to think of ourselves as decent people.

Nice. Professional. Fair.

Sometimes, we have to deliver bad news to someone, which can set off internal anxiety and ratchet up our emotional state. “Nice” and “Fair” no longer feel like they’re part of the game, making our situation more challenging.

The good news is that you can deliver bad news better.

1. Hone your message

Preparation for the conversation is essential. I once read that we should spend twice as long preparing for a meeting as we spend actually holding the meeting. While that seems ideal (yet impractical, perhaps?) for many situations, bad-news meetings may be the best time to apply that mindset. Ask yourself what you really need to talk about. Remember that the person on the receiving end is probably going to jump to an elevated emotional state of their own. You’ve had time to prepare, but maybe they haven’t. Choosing your topic and making sure you have researched the facts is important. Don’t overwhelm the conversation, don’t pile on the problems. Choose your message, practice it so you can deliver it without rambling, and avoid the urge to add “one more thing”.

What if you actually do have a lot of things to cover? Take, for instance, the situation where you thought you had one problem and as you looked into it, the problems snowballed and now you’ve got a list of 10 things to cover.

Should you begin by running through the list? That depends. Looking closely, you may be able to prioritize and identify the primary issue or the most time-sensitive one. You may want to start there, let them know upfront that you have multiple concerns but you’d like to begin with your strongest one and return to the others at a later time. Then see #3 below for follow-up

2. Maintain your focus

Remember when you were a kid and you knew you were in trouble? What was your best defense? Distraction!

“But, Lisa didn’t do the chores you asked her to do” (focus on someone else)

“But I did make my lunch yesterday and I fed the dog” (divert to other issues)

Since a lot of our defense mechanisms were developed early on, they can emerge strong when we’re stressed. If the person you’re talking with heads down another path, you will want to bring them back to the topic at hand.

“We can talk about that other project at another time, let’s stay focused on your project for now.”

“I haven’t had time to think about this new issue you’re raising, let’s set a follow-up time for that.”

It’s helpful to spend a few minutes of your preparation time thinking about how the person you’ll be speaking with has reacted in the past. Can you anticipate any of these behaviors? If so, have a few phrases ready to help bring them back into your conversation. When you’re feeling anxious, this will help you bring things back to calm, which is good for everyone involved.

Be true to your word during the conversation. If they are bringing up legitimate concerns and you offer to talk about them at another time, include them in #3.

Platitudes will diminish trust even if they seem to diffuse the situation in the moment.

3. Have a plan for resolution, but hold it lightly

I remember getting into some kind of trouble when I was a kid and being asked “What do you think your punishment should be?” This was such a startling question to seven-year-old me and I remember thinking “Isn’t that your job?”

As adults, we can, and should, have some responsibility for resolving the situation we’re in. Of course, there may be situations where policies, laws, and other governing direction has already been set, but many of our interactions are less prescriptive and what we’re looking for is an approach that brings us to a shared understanding of what happens next.

If you’re prepared, you may have some suggested corrective actions. This is useful, but don’t forget to be receptive to new information during your conversation and work that into a plan of action.

The best possible outcome is an agreement on action that has buy-in from both parties involved.

4. Agree on follow-up with clarity.

This one’s simple. What are you each going to do? By when? And how will you know it’s done.

Too often, we leave meetings or conversations in a rush with a general sense of what will happen only to later discover that we didn’t leave with the same tasks in mind.

  • Write it down.
  • Repeat it back.
  • Exchange notes after the meeting.
  • Set a follow up date and time

Having clarity, especially after an emotional discussion, is key. When we’re angry, upset, or otherwise distracted by our emotions, we’re not thinking at our clearest. Having something in writing and an ability to check back for clarity can help set things back on track.

5. Let it go

We all make mistakes. Every single one of us.

You never really know what else is going on in someone’s life and how your issue fits into their constellation of events. They may be struggling with something in their personal life, they may be excited about a positive change and focused elsewhere. They may have a different style of relating or communicating that’s making it hard for the two of you to connect.

You may have other pressures and situations that are impacting your view of the situation. Stress about another part of your job, anxiety about your career, personal demands, they can all influence our actions in ways we don’t see clearly in the moment.

You don’t have to like everyone you meet or interact with, but remembering that they each have some humanity and respecting that can help you move away from the emotional reactions you’re having and focus on the discussion at hand.

When it’s done, if you have a clear plan of action, you can focus on that and let the rest go.

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Is the initial positive actually working against you?

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Remember the initial positive?

First, tell them something positive, then tell them what’s wrong and conclude with another positive.

I’m sure it sounded like a good idea at the time. Especially for those of us who don’t really want to deliver bad news to people, it feels like a way to cushion the blow, from the messenger’s perspective.

But have you been on the receiving end of this conversation? It can feel something like this:

initial positive! “You’re doing great on the Kaboodle project, blah blah blah.”

(Right, you’re just saying all that because you’ve got some sort of gripe you’re about to unveil) 

here comes the bad news….“I think you could do better at managing your time on the KitandKaboodle project because….”

(Oh, so you think it’s my fault that Pat isn’t pulling his/her weight and now you’re blaming me. Great. I knew this conversation was really about that, and not Kaboodle)

and wrapping up with a positive! “But you’re making some good calls on the Zipperdoo project and I hope you’ll keep up the good work!”

(Yeah, until you assign Pat to that one too, then I’ll get the blame for slippage and it’ll be my fault again…)

Thanks!

(Thanks? All you did was tell me I was messing up the KitandKaboodle project.)

Okay, so that might be a bit extreme, but doesn’t some version of that happen when you’re delivering the positive-negative-postive sandwich? All the focus is on that middle piece and the positives are left to the side like unwanted bread crusts.

But a lot of us out there managing people were trained to do exactly this – and it’s supposed to make things better. Help the person you’re talking to see their strengths, talk about the things you should’t just sweep under the carpet, and then focus them on improvement in those areas with some assurance that you’re seeing the good work they’re doing.

Just tell me upfront

I had the chance to observe a couple of different exercises in the past month in which people were practicing a variation of this conversation.

Most of the time, some flavor of the sandwich was in play and sometimes the positives were so heavy the “employee” had no idea they had weaknesses.

By contrast, the most effective people put everything on the table at once.

“I’d like to talk about your excellent work on the Kaboodle and Zipperdoo projects and find out why we’re falling short of the schedule on KitandKaboodle. Which do you want to discuss first?”

When you’re going into a performance review, you don’t want to be surprised by what feels like a gotcha negative in the middle, do you?

Transparency

Transparency might be the latest buzzword, especially if you work in government at any level, but it’s a key factor in this scenario. By getting the sandwich ingredients on the table, it puts you in a position to work together on the assembly. Maybe the person you’re talking with needs to be able to discuss the positives first, maybe they’d rather get that biggie off the table first, but you won’t know if you don’t ask. And if you ask, you’re treating them as a partner in the conversation.

There’s a lot of research and practical information available about how to handle the rest of the conversation, but ditching the initial positive might be a simple first step.

Here are a few resources I’ve used – I’d be curious to know of others people find useful:

Difficult Conversations: how to discuss what matters most

Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How you and your team get unstuck to get results

Ask for it: How women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want

You’re doing great! You’re failing miserably! (and other useless feedback)

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I got a book from the library a few weeks ago called Thanks for the Feedback – the art and science of receiving feedback well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Feedback? You probably want to stop reading right now, don’t you? Or offer some…ahem..feedback?

The funny thing was when I opened the book, the book jacket was on backward and upside down. I wondered for a moment if this was a librarian’s joke (our librarians have a great sense of humor- and I speak from personal experience here). Was I supposed to figure out how to give them feedback about the book?

But here’s the thing that makes this a great read – it’s that one extra word in the title: receiving.

The bottom line here may be that it really is all about you. How do you manage feedback? Because if every conflict has at least two parties, and you’re one of them, then you know which one you might stand half a chance of managing, right?

The book got me to think about how we use feedback at work and how fraught with conflict it often is.

  • A co-worker who is trying to help us see into our blind spots
  • An employee who is not meeting our expectations
  • A boss who doesn’t communicate well
  • Customers, committees, boards, clients

And outside work, we are always getting and sending messages to our friends and family.

Most of us really want some real information about how we’re doing, but it can also be hard to hear what usually sounds like criticism.

I recommend reading the book if you’re looking for a really thorough study of the art of receiving feedback with lots of how-to examples.

But here’s a specific aspect of feedback that can help reduce conflict. How specific are we being?

When a performance review, for instance, says “great job!” it’s hard to know what about your work was valued. The lack of specificity may even make us doubt that our supervisor knows what our work actually entails. They haven’t given us any clues to go by. Was it my presentation style? My written report? My interaction with a team? My supervisory skills?

When we’re trying to grow or develop a new talent or skill, we’re especially interested in knowing how we’re doing.

Specificity in feedback can reduce misunderstandings and conflict.

Let me be specific.

When we’re giving feedback, we can reduce confusion and increase clarity by sharing our observations in detail.

Instead of this:

Great job at this morning’s meeting. Let’s hit the deadline.

Maybe this:

At this morning’s meeting, you said (insert quote of that thing they really said – not a paraphrase – this may require you to jot down some notes occasionally). I was pleased because it showed an understanding of the group’s assignment and you were asking for others to contribute to the project (I’m making this up, but you get the idea – why is what they did important?). It’s important to get this project done on time and I appreciate your efforts to include everyone in the room. Do you need anything else to meet the deadline?

That’s an example of how to give feedback though. What if you’re on the receiving end of the first type of feedback?

You may try to ask for the specific information you need.

Imagine this:

Supervisor: Great job at this morning’s meeting. Let’s hit the deadline.

Awesome. Except I have no idea what was great. I was trying to manage three conflicting personalities in the room and my kid might be coming down with a cold and I kept hoping the school wouldn’t call in the middle of the meeting. And, by the way,  I’m nervous about this new project.

You: Thanks, I know the deadline is important to you. Can you share a little more about what you observed this morning that was successful? That might help me better understand what you’re looking for. This is a new type of project for me and I’d like to be able to meet your expectations.

Supervisor: No worries, you’re doing great, just keep doing what you’re doing.

Okay, s/he’s getting a little irritated. Maybe they were not really paying attention during the meeting? How can I reframe a check-in as being in their best interest? And perhaps model some of what I’m looking for?

You: Thanks, I know you have some high expectations here and it would help me to spend a few minutes sharing what I think is working and what our next steps are – maybe we could check in for 5 minutes later today? I’ll bring some specific questions so we can keep it brief.

Supervisor: Okay, sure, 5 minutes.

You: Great.

Ack! I wonder if I have time to run to the library, get that book, read it all and use it…..haha. Okay, what am I really after in this conversation? And I’d better arrive prepared with specific observations and questions that can be handled in 5 minutes.

Now it’s back in your court. The conflict in this particular situation is internal. You’re looking for information, guidance, direction, and your supervisor isn’t giving it.

Maybe by modeling the specific interaction you’re after, they’ll be able to give you what you need.

If you’re lucky enough to have employees who are asking for feedback, Thanks for the Feedback – the art and science of receiving feedback well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. is a good resource.

Taking the sting out of giving – and hearing – feedback can reduce a lot of workplace tensions.

Do you have examples of how you’ve tried this?

Has it worked?

When has it backfired?