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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Managing expectations with unpleasant feedback

Are you avoidant, a sandwich lover, brutally direct and confrontational, somewhat direct, or plain nervous and clumsy when it comes to providing unpleasant feedback? It makes you totally human if you recognize any of the above. Providing someone with unpleasant feedback is often literally unpleasant, despite all the talk about feedback being a gift. You and I know that in a way it is a gift, because you provide someone with additional insight into the person, the behaviors, and the result, and hopefully into how to be more effective. But when you’re on the receiving side of unpleasant feedback, it generally doesn’t feel like a gift. At least not at first.

When you provide someone with feedback that is likely to be considered unpleasant, you don’t want to offend the person, you don’t want to raise the receiver’s defenses, you don’t want to be wrong, and you certainly don’t want to worry about being ‘un-liked’ as the provider of feedback. This is all possible and sometimes even likely to happen, but with the right intentions, approach, and above all with the right expectations, feedback conversations can be a lot more effective and less stressful.  

I’ll share with you some advice that I’ve been providing my coaching clients for over twenty years, especially managers and leaders, on how to prepare for and proceed with unpleasant feedback:

-       Manage your own expectations when providing feedback. No matter how well you prepare and execute, I’ve never seen anyone jump up and down with joy and appreciation when receiving unpleasant feedback. Prepare yourself for possible denial, defense, withdrawal, or plain frustration or sadness. These are normal first responses for someone who is hearing unpleasant feedback, so be prepared for these possible emotions and reactions, accept them as first responses, and be mindful not to get sucked into the natural dynamics of the emotion, such as: defense triggers offense or withdrawal triggers the desire to pull or push the person out of isolation.  Don’t expect the impossible or unlikely. In some cases, with very strong emotions and responses, it might be wise to reschedule the meeting rather than to continue against all odds.

-       Manage expectations of the receiver of unpleasant feedback. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t use the sandwich technique i.e. packing the criticism between two layers of compliments as if the person wouldn’t sense what is about to happen. Be open, honest, and direct immediately and make sure you are clear about what is unwanted and about what you want to see differently in the future and how.

-       To elaborate on the previous, don’t just talk about what went wrong in the past, but discuss what can be done differently in the future and how it will benefit the person, the team, the customer etc. With “feedforward”, as I’d like to call it, you can help your coworker or employee (but also your teenager or friend, of course) focus on hearing the suggestions without becoming overly defensive or worrying about their reply. It’s so much nicer discussing something that you can still act on rather than feeling condemned for something that has already happened and cannot be changed anymore. Certainly, mistakes or unwanted behaviors and choices can serve as good examples and a framework, but don’t make the past the main focus of your conversation.  To give credit where it belongs, the term feedforward in the world of coaching, leadership, and management was, as far as I know, introduced by the great management thinker and influential leadership development practitioner Dr. Marshall Goldsmith. He created FeedForward, a tool to provide individuals, teams, and organizations with suggestions for the future and to help them achieve a positive change in their behavior.

-       Listen, ask clarifying questions, help the receiver of the feedback explore, reflect, and rethink and solicit suggestions for improvement – these are all essential elements of providing effective feedback.

-       Last, important feedback should never be a surprise during performance review meetings. Make sure to discuss concerns as soon as you notice that expectations and objectives do not match outcomes in order for the person to reflect and work on improvements (or a change of plans).

Providing direct, clear, specific, and actionable feedback is often a critical job for any parent, employee, manager, and leader. Make it a habit to add value with your “feedforward” and to manage expectations on both ends of the conversation.
For my previous post on feedback with more of the usual practical tips regarding feedback go to:

Wishing you honest, open, and constructive feedback conversations, whether in business or in private settings, whether provider or receiver of feedback. Manage those expectations before unmanaged expectations control the conversation.


  1. 'Great advice, Carolien, and I love the "feed forward" idea; well done. I find that it's also helpful to be clear about our motives for giving feedback. If it is truly to help, and we stay on that course, the experience is generally more positive for the feedback giver and receiver. I also still like the advice in two very useful books a while back: "Crucial Conversations" and "Crucial Confrontations."

  2. Absolutely Al, the motives for feedback provide a necessary framework. Thanks for your valuable thoughts and I will look at your book suggestions. I love to read!