I’ve come to realize that the ability to deliver meaningful, timely and constructive feedback is a rare skillset for leaders.  This is not because it is an extremely difficult skill, but rather this gap seems to exist because many individuals are simply uncomfortable with it.  A significant number of leaders assume that giving tough feedback will lead to conflict which they would rather avoid.

This point was reinforced for me recently when a client complained about behavior that she felt was “unprofessional” by a team member and that her solution was not to say anything directly but rather to increase her oversight of this individual in an attempt to “avoid” these problems in the future.  When I asked why she had not provided feedback about this performance gap to the individual in question, her response was that she didn’t want to do that because “no adult likes to hear that kind of feedback.”   This totally confused me because I don’t think micromanaging is a great alternative either.

With all due respect to every polite, passive aggressive leader out there, this approach is just plain wrong.

Everyone needs feedback on how they are doing now and then – that is how we learn and grow.  Constructive feedback can be given in a way that does not cause conflict and can provide team members with valuable insight on what could otherwise be a career show-stopper for that individual.

Throughout my career in human resources and consulting, I have provided much direct feedback and have more times than not, been thanked for being honest.  I have had many individuals – adults with good career histories – say to me, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told me that before?”

It’s a good question and it is likely because the manager was not comfortable with HOW to give good feedback.  It’s not a gift – it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced.

In particular, I have taught and used a fairly well known model for giving difficult feedback called the DESC script.  It is a powerful method that allows tough issues to be tackled in a way that does not lay blame, seeks to understand, and creates a suggested solution.   It looks like this:

D = describe.  The first step in giving difficult feedback is to describe the situation – using “I” statements rather than “you” – in a way that describes the facts of the situation and does not lay blame or attribute motive or emotions.  For example, “I noticed that there is often a delay of several days before you respond to client email questions.”

E = express.  Express why this is important.  I think this is the most critical step both to help the receiver understand why this is important and to ensure that it really is.  If a leader cannot adequately express the impact of the issue (other than because it drives them crazy), then maybe it should not be shared.  An example of this is “When we don’t respond to clients on a timely basis, we are making them wait and are not living up to our service promise.  This may make it harder to retain their business.”

S = seek or specify.  This is most effective if it is a collaborative approach to seek out a mutually acceptable solution to the problem.  When the receiver is part of the solution, they are more likely to own it.  “Can you think of ways to organize your workload that will enable you to respond in a timelier manner?”  “Can we agree upon an acceptable turnaround time for the future?”

C = consequences.  How will the problem be solved by using this solution?  Generally, this should be framed in a positive manner – not as a threat.  Something like this. “So, we agree that the standard will be to respond to emails within 24 hours during normal business hours.  This will help to manage expectations for our clients and will enable us to differentiate our service from other providers.”

This simple but powerful framework for constructive feedback can go a long way to help leaders become better at addressing performance issues with their team.  Just think – if you don’t tell them, how will they ever know?  In most cases, the employee will appreciate your candor and coaching.

Give it a try!