Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was open to feedback, thankful for the insight, and then acted on the information in an impactful way? Leadership certainly would be easier, but unfortunately, that’s not the reality that the majority of us face when giving feedback to teams. People come with various levels of baggage and history that impact how they receive feedback. Some cry, some yell, and others try to avoid it altogether.
Before jumping into a feedback session, think about the person and how they likely will react to the information. Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally, latch on to your Why, and have the conversation in a neutral, distraction-free place.
For those that have a tendency to cry
It can be easy to get frustrated or distracted when the other person consistently cries when they receive feedback. There are a number of reasons why someone reacts in this way ranging from low self-esteem to feeling like a personal failure when not meeting expectations. Regardless of the reasoning behind a crying reaction, your message still needs to be delivered, even when it makes you uncomfortable.
Be prepared for a follow-up meeting if the person needs to calm down. Pushing through the conversation carries little value for either party.
Assure the person that you have their best interest at heart. Just because a message may be hard, doesn’t mean that your delivery has to be. Approach with care and empathy while sticking to your standard.
Acknowledge the emotion in the room. Leaders sometimes want to ignore the emotion and continue on in the conversation, because of their own annoyance or uncomfortably. Take a moment to acknowledge them, and frame up the why behind the conversation before carrying on.
Be on the lookout for people that cry during feedback that don’t normally do so. It’s often a sign that something bigger is going on with the person either personally or professionally.
For those that yell
Sometimes people respond to feedback by yelling and becoming aggressive verbally and even physically. These people can be hard to coach for a couple of reasons. Either A) You have lower managerial courage (PTB 81) and you tend to avoid these types of conversations or B) You aren’t intimidated and will volley back fire with fire. Both have major pitfalls when it comes to feedback; the first lets the problem continue to fester and the second one only validates the reason for the other person’s anger.
Your winning approach here is to stay calm. Stay calm and collected even when your heart may be pounding out of your chest. Lower your voice as they raise theirs. They’ll have to lower theirs as well in order to hear you.
Call out poor behavior as you see it. “I need you to lower the volume of your voice.”
Let the other person know your expectations and be willing to cut the conversation if they can’t control themselves. “This is not productive and we can’t continue the conversation like this. Take a moment for yourself here or we will need to reschedule this.”
Hold to your standard without matching their level of anger.
For those that are defensive
Have you noticed how those that are the most defensive are also the most critical of others? Often rooted in low self-esteem, these people may feel humiliated, degraded, embarrassed, or exposed by your feedback and constructive criticism. The key here is to not let the person slip through the conversation without being accountable for the change needed.
The person may very try to deflect the conversation in a different direction. “You don’t know everything that is going on”, or “This is X person’s fault.” Not only are they deflecting responsibility, but they also want to engage in their statements to change the focus of the conversation.
Put a spotlight on accountability. “I see this as your responsibility.” Highlight their role in the situation.
When they play the victim, ask them about what role they could have played to impact the outcome.
Address the recurring behavior
Now that we know how to address these main blockers to constructive feedback, should we put these practices in place and move on? Of course not! If you have someone that consistently exhibits one of these reactions to feedback, have a session on that behavior itself. “I notice every time that I give you feedback, you react in ______ way. I want the best for you, and I know that you do as well. How can we connect on feedback in a way that is more open?” Next, explain your expectations for how they need to do their part in accepting feedback.
Help the situation by providing feedback in smaller amounts instead of letting it build up and keeping the conversation as close to the occurrence as possible.
Your people need feedback in order to improve and reach their fullest potential. Address the criers, yellers, and avoiders in a way that hits home for them so you can give feedback that is processed in a positive way.
Tough conversations are…well.. tough. It’s certainly not the most enviable part of being a leader, but it’s certainly a differentiator between an ok manager and a leader worth following. A great leader doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations, but at the same time isn’t confrontational enough to create unneeded drama in the workplace. They have the conversations that need to be had with positive intent that benefits the individual and the team.
Here are some things to remember as you step up to tough conversations.
Seek feedback, discuss the situation, and bounce ideas of approach off of your trusted advisors, and mentors. They may be able to fill in a perspective that you haven’t considered or give you valuable feedback on your approach or intentions.
Many organizations also have HR support, either as a generalist or someone that specifically works with employee issues. Be sure to partner with these groups for guidance. They can help to ensure that you are good from a legal and best practice perspective.
Go in with a plan
No matter your level of comfortability with improvisation when speaking to others, always plan through the key points that you want to share when having a difficult conversation with others.
Here is a real way that a tough conversation can go if you head into the interaction with the “I’m just going to wing it” mentality.
You begin the conversation, it meanders a bit and you miss one of the key points of the conversation.
The person responds in a way that you hadn’t considered and you improvise some more. This takes you further off course.
The other person reacts to the change in direction.
Now you react again to the other person, further taking you off-topic.
Rinse and repeat the back and forth.
By the end, you are both at your wit’s end. You’ve only further eroded the relationship and can’t realistically expect any kind of behavior change from the person, because they haven’t accepted the feedback that you wanted to give.
Not ideal! You’ve likely seen that conversation play out several different ways in both your personal and professional life. You don’t necessarily have to have a script for every conversation, but you should always have a plan:
What are the key points that you want to get across?
What is the impact of the reason for the meeting?
What time frame do they need to correct the behavior or action?
What is the best place or environment to have the conversation?
What are some ways that they may react? Are you mentally prepared for those reactions?
Acknowledge your feelings
We have experience feelings leading up to and during those difficult conversations. It’s likely that you are frustrated, disappointed, or even angry with the person and the decisions that led to a need for a tough conversation. Take time to acknowledge those and process them as you prepare for that talk with the other person.
You may be given the advice to “shut down” your emotions and just plow through the conversation with the other person. (A just do it mentality) Sure, you may be able to navigate a conversation this way, but you’re less likely to come out on the other side of the interaction in a way that truly adds value to others.
Instead of shutting off all emotions and coming across as cold and uncaring, lean into your emotional intelligence skills in order to acknowledge both your and the other person’s emotions without letting emotions run rampant over the reason for the conversation.
Be honest and give feedback. It’s okay to be assertive and to the point. “When you _____activity_____ I get/feel/become ____emotion_____. I need ________ going forward. I wanted you to know this because__________ (It impacts my work and I want to have a good relationship with you, I care about you, I want us both to do well, etc)
It’s ok to be nervous or to have butterflies in your stomach before a difficult conversation. Acknowledge them, remember your plan and partnerships with others that have supported you up until this moment. Go into the conversation with positive intent while showcasing your strong emotional intelligence and empathy skills. The other person will be better equipped with proper expectations and you’ll be strengthening your own leadership qualities in the process.
Empathy, Sympathy, and Pity. Besides a catchy title to a podcast, it’s three words and that have different meanings and that can get a leader tripped up and cost the leader personal credibility when they get these three confused.
The ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
We covered the topic of empathy in detail on previous shows and newsletters. Empathy is certainly the strongest of the three emotions. It requires a connection to the person and the situation and will also cause you to act in a caring and compassionate way.
Empathy is the gold mine for relational leadership. It allows you to quickly build trust with others to establish great working relationships that pay off. Acting on empathy also empowers the leader to connect with the team while holding on to strong expectations and standards.
As a young leader, I was very black and white. Either you met the standard and expectation on you didn’t. I thought that when someone had clear expectations and resources to get the job done and they didn’t then, it was on them. Growing in empathy helped me to begin mastering the grey areas of leadership. It allowed me to meet them where they were and then show them a path to their own greatness.
I’ve yet to meet a person that didn’t value a strong relationship with their leader where they felt valued and challenged to be their best.
An Affinity association or relationship between a person or thing where whatever affects one similarly affects the other.
Sympathy is a way to connect with others, but it usually means that the leader’s feeling is not as intense and the connection level is not as deep either.
Sympathy can get the best of leaders in a number of ways. For some leaders, sympathy leads to lowering their expectations or leading inconsistently across the team. This is especially true for leaders that aren’t balanced in their approach and are too relational in their leadership and relationship with the team. For some savvy employees, they will take advantage of this dynamic will turn you into an enabler to their inconsistent and bad behaviors.
For other leaders, they may feel sympathy, but then don’t know what to do with it. Do you ask if you can help? Do you just express it verbally and then try to awkwardly move on? I would suggest some type of action when you feel that sympathy for others. Don’t ask, because they may not feel comfortable asking for help or assistance. It can be a small gesture like a gift card to a restaurant so they don’t have to worry about cooking a meal to clearing out and covering a schedule so they have some time away.
Act on your sympathy towards others.
The feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.
The definition itself doesn’t sound too bad, but pity often comes across as condescending. You can be seen as putting yourself on a pedestal, believing that you are better than someone else or that you feel sorry for them.
The feeling of pity often leads to inaction. You see it, recognize it and then keep moving on. Take the feeling of pity and then turn it through the lens of empathy. Route the feeling through a positive and healthy approach so that the other person feels valued and cared for during your interaction with them.
Pity is a feeling and emotion which means it isn’t bad. It’s just an emotion! How you act and react to that feeling is what can give someone a negative view of your personal behavior and beliefs.
It’s important to understand the differences between these three types of feelings and what your natural reaction are to them so that you can react appropriately when the situation occurs.
People hold on to long memories of how others treated, handled, and helped them when they needed it. Grow your self-awareness around these so that you can lead others well, become a model leader for others to follow, and turn tough situations in a positive direction.
It’s hard to be empathetic with a person when they don’t come out and tell us what the situation is or what they are going through.
Develop a keen awareness and remember back to the power of body language (EP 186). People often telegraph that they are struggling and their need to talk before they communicate it verbally.
Take a proactive approach and reach out to the person. Then listen well and be willing to open up at least a little to the other person. Sometimes leaders in an effort to connect with others end up making it about themselves instead. Be very aware not to turn the focus towards yourself during the conversation.
Remember that empathy goes both ways and when you make yourself vulnerable and listen well you are allowing the other person to return empathy back to you in the situation.
Roadblock #2: Prejudice both known and unknown
The prejudice that we have towards general cultures or types of people can be a major hurdle to empathy.
Clairborne Paul Ellis was a man that grew up in poverty and thought that African Americans were the ones that were the cause of these troubles. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the KKK. His hatred for African Americans became a driving force in his life. He was later asked to be a part of a community group to tackle racial tensions in schools because of this prominence in the town.
Ellis worked alongside an African American woman named Ann Atwater. He hated Atwater and obviously had no empathy towards her. Ellis eventually learned about Ann’s similar stories about poverty and began to realize that his situation had nothing to do with another people group. His empathy began to grow and it pushed him to action. He renounced his KKk membership, became lifelong friends with Atwater, and organized a union that had a 70% African American membership. Ellis’s story is a powerful one that shows how empathy can impact your own life.
Question the prejudices that you know about in your own life and dig down deep to find those ones that you don’t realize that you have. Make an effort to connect with people from those groups and situations in order to establish a new perspective on things.
Roadblock #3: Missing the person for the problem
I’ve recently had several different leaders across multiple industries reach out to PTB about how to handle employee performance issues and potential actions that should be taken. It seems to be the number one thing that makes leaders hesitant or afraid of.
People know, or have heard at least heard, horror stories of these events. Conversations gone sideways. Freakouts. Violence. The fallout afterward. I’ve never had this happen to me once I harnessed the power of empathy.
The problem is that the leader gets hyper-focused on the problem, or what the offending person did and they act out in hostility or anger when having the conversation. This, of course, causes a reaction in the other person, and thus another horror story of accountability gone wrong is born.
You may understand and know the problem, ensure that you use your empathy to understand the root reason why they acted the way that they did. Treat them like a person by giving them honor and respect no matter the situation. They are still human after all. Taking this approach will make these conversations much more successful. I lean heavily into my empathy skills while having these conversations. As odd as it sounds, I’ve gotten multiple handshakes and hugs after letting people go. Empathy is powerful.
Use your knowledge in empathy to grow your ability to connect with others in a meaningful way. Your likability with others will increase, your decision-making ability will be more thought out and your ability to navigate tough employee conversations will be strong.
Empathy is certainly a learned skill much like riding a bike or any technical skill at work. Now that we understand what empathy is (EP 245) you should have an idea of where you can begin to grow your own empathy.
You need to be open to empathy
You first have to be open to the idea of allowing yourself to tap into your own emotions and those of others. This point of entry into empathetic growth is why you will never be able to force someone to grow in this area. You can’t tell a person to close their eyes and imagine themselves in the other person’s situation if they aren’t open to it. They may close their eyes, but they will not establish a connection.
In order to be open to growing your empathy, you must first have a strong sense of self, confidence, and comfortability with engaging in emotions. You won’t reach your fullest potential in empathy without this foundation.
You don’t have to walk a mile in their shoes
There are variations of a saying that basically states that you shouldn’t judge someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. The premise of the saying is that you should understand and live out an experience before you cast judgment on someone else. That’s not necessarily needed to make a good empathetic connection.
Let’s say that a co-worker is devastated because they bombed their first presentation in a meeting. You haven’t had that experience, but you can remember how you felt in a similar situation. Maybe it was a time you let a bunch of friends down or disappointed a boss that you really looked up to or your nerves got the best of you in a situation. Connecting how you felt in those situations to how your co-worker is feeling is a great bridge for solid empathy.
I may not have lived out that exact scenario, but I understand the emotions that you are feeling.
Understand that the bridge to true empathy is not created equal
It is easier for us to have empathy with people that look like us and have similar backgrounds. That’s because we can easily relate their experiences to our own. It’s a short and wide bridge to cross.
Understand that it takes more mental work to make connections to other groups and backgrounds. That bridge is longer and more narrow. Be very mindful of these situations. Listen more, ask questions, and look for ways to establish that connection with the other person.
Think objectively in the situation
Know that people communicate through filters. They want to protect themselves or they are only talking about the scenario from their point of view. I’m not saying that the other person is a liar or trying to deceive you, but know that their emotions may be clouding their judgment, communication, and mindset.
Understand the impact on the person while thinking about the bigger picture of what’s going on around them. This helps me connect well with a person while making informed decisions on the larger view of things.
An objective example of this would be when two employees get into a disagreement. One comes to you feeling disrespected and hurt. You can connect with that person in how’d you’d feel if you were slighted. Staying objective helps you avoid making a brash decision and seek to understand the other side as well. You may even find out that there were a number of things that lead to the blow-up.
Having a strong objective view helps you have empathy for both sides when working through people issues. It is always to good to have empathy for all sides in employee and family conflicts.
These tips give you a great start in growing your empathy with others. We’ll share roadblocks to growth and more tips next week.