4 essential phrases to delivering tough feedback

How to get through to employees without making them defensive.

4 essential phrases to delivering tough feedback

When someone’s performance slips, it falls to the leader to help them. One of the best ways to assist is by giving critical feedback, but determining the exact tone of these talks can be tricky. Leaders can unwittingly sabotage feedback conversations by being too harsh or too nice, according to speaker, trainer and consultant Daniel Murray. As a result, team members can misread the seriousness of the situation or fight back against what they are hearing. 

The secret to communicating critical feedback effectively is to create a conversation around a single goal: improving the team member’s performance. This conversation needs to be urgent enough to prompt a course correction, but also empathetic enough no reasonable team member will construe it as a personal attack. 

With that in mind, Murray recommends structuring critical feedback conversations around the following phrases:

1. "I noticed ..."

These words bring the issue out into the open and set the stage for what’s to come. Leading with “I noticed” indicates there is something abnormal that needs explanation. Just as important is ending an “I noticed” statement with a neutral description of the problem. Telling an advisor, “I’ve noticed you’re making fewer calls,” is vastly different from, “I noticed you’ve stopped working hard.” The former statement can be backed up by evidence, while the latter is a matter of opinion that can, and most likely will, be contested. 

2. "I imagine ..."

Follow the “I noticed” opener by making a guess as to the cause of the situation you’ve noticed. This guess should act as an olive branch. The leader should suggest a charitable explanation. Perhaps an advisor is late to team meetings because their client meetings are running long or because they have a lot going on outside of work. After making an “I imagine” statement, allow the person to respond with a confirmation or correction.  

“He could have a whole host of reasons as to why he was late to those team meetings,” Murray said. 

“Sometimes we hear good reasons, and we think Great, the feedback's finished now. But I want you to pause this moment because what we haven't done yet is be clear on why the team member needs to change this behavior.”  

3. "I think ..."

After you’ve made an empathic gesture with an “I imagine” statement, it’s time to issue a warning with an “I think” statement. Use “I think” to lay out the consequences of uncorrected behavior. For instance, if someone appears too distracted in their training sessions, you can say, “I think the other advisors might notice and follow your lead, and no one will learn anything.” It’s entirely reasonable to share that someone’s job is in jeopardy if that is the case. Leaders should avoid issuing threats to their team members, but they absolutely should provide fair warnings. It’s a fine line to walk, but one leaders must learn to navigate.  

Always proceed with the team member’s best interests at heart. Remember that you want them to change while there is still time. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be having this conversation. “Do not sugarcoat the damage they are doing. Do not sugarcoat the impacts they will experience if there isn't a change,” Murray said.“ This is vital in feedback. Be very clear. Don't be cruel. Don't be too nice. Be very clear and kind.” 

4. "I can ..."

Here is where you offer the actionable part of the feedback. You are essentially telling your team member what they should do, but you are doing it in a way that indicates they won’t be alone. Use the “I can” statement to communicate how you are willing to help. It might be possible, for instance, to move meetings back a half-hour to accommodate a chronically late employee who has excusable reasons for their tardiness. The “I can” statement is all about support. You should not be trying to fix the problem for them, but you can offer some assistance as they try to pull themselves together.  

Keep in mind that the first time you try out this format, you should have what you’re going to say written down to use as a reference during the discussion. But as you return to these types of meetings throughout your leadership journey, you should stop using cards entirely to maintain your authenticity.

“If you get into the habit of saying, ’I noticed, I imagined,’ every time you get someone in your office, they might get a little suspicious,” Murray said. 

Though a critical feedback conversation requires some forethought, it does not have to be drawn out at the moment. Putting all four statements together, Murray provides the following example of a short critical feedback conversation: “I noticed your work has been late for the last few days. I imagine you're a bit stressed and stretched at the moment. But I think every time you turn things in late, it really puts this account at risk. So, I want to look at all the things you've got on your plate at the moment and see if we can prioritize together.” 

Daniel Murray shared this advice during the MDRT Global Services Webcast “How to give difficult feedback to your team members.”