Making tougher feedback conversations easier and stronger

Many managers and leaders we meet struggle with tough feedback conversations. They don’t like criticizing people and worry about not only the conversation, but also the relationship and motivation of the employee after the conversation. This means they end up adopting one of three sub-optimal approaches:

Avoidance – managers often avoid the conversation altogether in the hope that the problem will miraculously go away or that the person’s poor performance won’t cause any major problems. Of course this rarely happens, therefore this option is a risky one.

Watering down critical messages – the manager uses the much lauded “sandwich” approach to layer the critical feedback between two layers of positive feedback. However, research shows that this approach almost always backfires even though it is still commonly hailed as the answer to tough feedback by HR and training professionals alike. The result of this approach is that high performers and achievers end up only hearing the negative feedback and become demotivated while poor performers leave the conversation with a watered down message that their performance is ok and they don’t need to do anything differently.

Over-criticism – this is a much less common approach, however, some managers use an overly critical tone, criticizing not just behaviours but even the person themselves. They generalize the critical feedback to the person’s performance overall rather than focusing on the behaviour that needs to be changed. So, they might say something like “You’re always destructive and negative in our team meetings” rather than “When Sally was presenting during the last team meeting, I observed that you made a number of critical remarks that you didn’t back up adequately. This left me and others in the team feeling frustrated as she had done a lot of work to prepare.” This is a particularly risky option, as it is likely to leave the person feeling demotivated and angry. It also opens the door for unfair dismissal claims at a later stage.

The benefits of using a strengths-based feedback approach

Contrary to widespread opinion, the strengths approach doesn’t ignore weaker areas and other performance risks (including overdone strengths and psychological barriers such as poor self-confidence). In fact, it is much more powerful in helping to deal with these for a variety of reasons:

  • It ensures a more positive, solutions-based conversations about how to reduce and mitigate weaker areas and other risks to peak performance, including overdone strengths. It encourages people to think about how they can use natural strengths to address weaker areas and to partner with others who have strengths in areas where they are weaker. This complementary partnering not only helps reduce the impact of weaker areas, it also builds a strong team culture within the organisation.
  • It ensures a less threatening conversation, removing fears and defensiveness about talking about weaker areas. One of the underpinning principles of the approach is that we are all ‘spiky’ – possessing great strengths and also weaknesses. We always emphasize this at the outset of a coaching or feedback conversation which encourages people to talk more openly about their weaker areas and other blockers to performance.
  • The strengths approach is unique in helping people become aware of and reduce strengths that are overdone or used in the wrong way resulting in poor results. The damaging effects of overdone strengths was found in research conducted by Centre for Creative Leadership in the late 90’s when they established that overdone strengths are often more important sources of poor performance and career failure than competency weaknesses. For example, people who are too confident may become arrogant and those that are too compassionate may find it difficult to avoid becoming over involved in their co-workers’ personal problems.

A simple formula to apply the strengths based feedback approach

Based on decades of experience in helping managers and leaders deal with tough conversations more effectively, we recommend applying a straightforward BIRD formula to help people soar and achieve their full potential (either at the company or elsewhere). The stages of BIRD are:

What did they do (under performance) and what was the context?
This step involves helping the person understand the specific nature of the under performance and situation(s) in which it is occurring. It is important to be as specific as possible about the behaviours observed so managers should keep notes of their observations and provide feedback to the individual as quickly as possible after the incident so the person remembers it.

What is the impact on performance and relationships?
The manager’s role is to ensure the person understands how their performance is adversely impacting goal achievement and also relationships with others. Many people are unaware of the impact of their behaviour and although their intentions are likely to be very positive, their behaviour is causing negative outcomes unknown to them. In our experience, people are typically more motivated to change when they understand how their behaviour is negatively impacting their performance, the team and the organisation.

What is the underlying performance risk or cause of the under performance – is it a weakness, overdone strength or caused by another course of interference (e.g., low self-confidence or personal problems at home)?
This stage is really important as it involves uncovering the root cause of the problematic behaviour rather than just dealing with one-off behaviours. There are 3 main areas of risk – limiting weaknesses that require development, overdone strengths that need to be moderated or ‘dialed down’ or other sources of performance interference such as self-limiting assumptions and beliefs. A candid and thorough exploration of what’s behind the behaviour is important to ensure the individual understands the root causes and triggers for the behaviour and can address these in a focused and positive way.

What development options can be used to improve performance and what strengths will help them succeed?
Once the performance risks have been clarified, the manager and person can explore different development options to improve performance and/or relationships. We typically recommend 3 strengths-based strategies for doing this including:

  1. Dialing up or dialing down their strengths to reduce any overdrive behaviours and use their natural strengths to get the best out of a situation.
  2. Drawing on colleagues and other stakeholders whose strengths are different from theirs.
  3. Developing and practising new skills and habits in areas which are less natural and energising for them through on-the job-experiences, coaching, mentoring and online and face-to-face training.

Of course providing constructive feedback doesn’t always work and some employees are unwilling or unable to change. In these cases, it is important for managers to continue to deal with the matter in an upfront, honest and timely way, ideally with the support of their HR business partner if they have one. Even in these situations, the strengths approach provides a powerful ‘lens’ to make sense of what is going on and how to deal with it. For example, some people’s natural strengths are simply not well matched with the requirements of the job and if this is the case, it is always better to help them find another position which is a better match rather than hoping the situation will go away or resolve itself.

The strengths-based approach offers a fresh way to crack one of the biggest challenges we see for managers and leaders. The key is not to avoid these tough conversations or used a mixed-message ‘sandwich’ approach which is often confusing and demotivating. By having open and open conversations about the problematic behaviour and keeping it strengths-focused using the BIRD formula outlined above, manages will ensure conversations are not only smoother and more honest, but also result in higher levels of motivation and positive change afterwards.

James Brook