Managers…is the feedback you give diplomatic enough?

Giving positive managerial feedback to employeesIf you answered, “Of course it is, you moron,” it’s probably not! Being able to give performance advice in a tactful manner is a vital management skill. If you are the kind of leader who takes pride in speaking your mind, you might have to be extra careful with your words and tone, unless you want to “speak your mind” to a brick wall. Nothing shuts down receptivity faster than harsh criticism.

More than just word choice

It’s easy to think you are automatically being diplomatic, simply by careful word selection. That is not always the case. For example: If the less objectionable word “dirt” was substituted for the word “garbage” in the following Jack Handey quote, chances are pretty good, Laurie would still be offended.

“Laurie got offended that I used the word ‘garbage’. But to me, that’s what her dinner tasted like…garbage!”

Don’t get me wrong, words are important. You want to avoid, for example, calling someone a moron, because that is an obvious attack and hurts my their feelings. But there are other things to consider when trying to get your point across.

To illustrate the best way to keep a person from shutting down, let’s look at a full spectrum of feedback, from ineffectively harsh to ineffectively tame.

For this example, an employee has inadvertently taken action that has caused a lot of extra work and headaches. It was bad, but the company is still standing, and nobody got hurt.

In response, the manager might say:

1. What are you, stupid?
Not only is the manager calling the employee stupid, he’s trying to get the guy to call himself stupid. Rating: Super harsh.
2. You’re stupid.
Simple, and to the point, but probably not so effective. Rating: Very harsh. Moving on.
3. I think you must be stupid.
Now we are getting somewhere. We have introduced the “I” message. Starting out by talking about your own thoughts and feelings takes the sting out of the criticism… a little. Still pretty harsh.
4. I think what you did was stupid.
Better still. We have the “I” message, plus we are labeling the action, instead of the person. Harsh, but getting better.
5. I think what you did was a bad idea. Can you explain what happened?
Depending on the employee, this may be just about right. We’ve banished the “stupid”, and invited an open conversation about the action. Rating: Stern but fairly diplomatic.
6. I feel that this could have been handled better. Let’s talk about what happened.
For sensitive employees, the above approach is about perfect. Some folks will spend enough time beating themselves up, that they will need little assistance from their angry manager. This acknowledges the problem, reassures the person that it’s not the end of the world, and invites a discussion about how to avoid the problem in the future. However, if the employee is a frequent source of trouble or does not seem at all aware of the chaos that has been caused, this could be too diplomatic. This is a fine opener, but make sure the person knows he or she is being held accountable for the issue. Rating: Diplomatic.
7. I like your shoes!
Do employee confrontations make you cringe?  Possibly, you are avoiding the problem here. Rating:  Ineffectively diplomatic.

Other things to consider

If you take pride in always speaking your mind and letting people know where you stand, pay attention to when you do so. Are you as talkative when something pleases you as when it displeases you? Don’t forget to take time every day to praise good performance. You might be surprised by how much more effective that is than the tough guy method. Bonus: It’s easy to be diplomatic when your message is a positive one!


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