Executive Careers Blog

Employee Review Time: Three Ways to Give Tough Feedback

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Right now, one of your employees—let's call him Bob—has spinach between his teeth, metaphorically speaking. Someone needs to tell him.

Here are three possible problems, plus three extra-strength techniques:

1) Bob can't hear the feedback. You think you're talking about a little piece of spinach, but Bob thinks his entire identity is under attack and gets defensive.

Use the evil twin technique.

Say: "Bob, this (the performance issue) is so UNLIKE YOU. What happened?"

That allows Bob to preserve self-esteem, while he agrees with you that the problem was an outlier and won't happen again.

Unfortunately, sometimes you can't blame the evil twin because Bob's behavior is EXACTLY like BOB.

But you can still make the feedback easier to hear.

Say: "Bob, unless we fix this, it's going to derail your career. You're much too important to the organization, and to me, for us to let that happen."

2) Bob doesn't understand it.

Your feedback is unclear—probably because it's too general.

Use the video camera technique. Be specific.

Stick to what Bob did or didn't do, said or didn't say—concrete behavior that, if you made a movie about Bob, anyone in their right mind would observe it.

Bad: "You were unprofessional at the client meeting." (There are 1001 ways to be unprofessional. "Unprofessional" is an interpretation, not observable behavior.)

Still bad: "You seemed highly agitated." (You can't see agitation.)

Better: "I noticed you gulped down 10 pills the size of horse tranquilizers. Then you galloped out of the meeting. Later, I heard some whinnying."

3) Bob doesn't know what to do about it.

The whole purpose of feedback is to influence the future. The past is dead. If you only talk about the past, that's criticism.

Criticism sounds bad: "Bob, you screwed this up, you screwed that up, you screwed everything up. You're a screw-up!"

That's a tough message to motivate with.

Use future-focused feedback. Be the coach who pulls a player off the field, whispers a few words of advice and encouragement, then sends him back out.

Say these three key words: "The next time . . .

Tip: Make sure your feedback is heard, understood, and actionable. 

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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