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You Can’t Handle the Truth!

One of the most challenging aspects of our jobs as leaders and managers is to provide feedback to our employees. As HR Pros, the challenge is often more difficult as we are often called upon to enable feedback when the employee doesn’t even report to us. Quite often, we are even coaching a manager on how to have the feedback conversation with their employee, or better yet, employees often come to us for “feedback” because they aren’t getting it from their manager or they want a “neutral” perspective.

You cant handle the truthRegardless, as leaders, providing candid feedback to our employees is a huge responsibility that we have, one that must be exercised with care, deliberation and foresight. The approach you take quite often depends on how well you know the employee that is either asking for and/or needs the feedback. The most important thing to consider, above all else, is that you must always tell the truth. HOW you deliver the truth is where the real art form comes in to play as a leader.

The other little secret I will let you in on when an employee asks for your feedback about their performance, etc. and they tell you they want the truth, is that the reality is that most employees can’t handle truth. Therefore, you need to truly understand the situation you are dealing with because you may be in for an explosive confrontation if not handled correctly. So, with all things leadership, it comes down to knowing your employee(s).

Sometimes the truth must be delivered in a very delicate fashion and sometimes you can go ahead and hit someone over the head with it. Everything comes down to relationships and how much trust you have built with the person asking for/needing the feedback. As I already mentioned, the reality is that most people can’t handle the truth when it comes to feedback. Even if the employee is a top performer, if you give them feedback on some things they need to improve/focus on, they probably won’t be able to handle everything you tell them. Let’s face it – the truth usually hurts. Star performers like to think they are star performers in all areas and poor performers don’t want someone to point where they are falling short because they probably already know where they are failing and don’t want to be reminded!

For the rest of your employees, hearing the truth often hurts. As human beings we don’t want to be reminded of our flaws and shortcomings. Many of us have spouses that remind us of those, so we don’t want to hear about it at work! But seriously, having these types of conversations are difficult at the best of times and it takes an awesome leader and coach to engage their staff in truthful feedback conversations.

So, what are the keys to success?

  1. Build effective relationships with your staff. Get to know them better – what makes them tick? What motivates them? Talk to them on a regular basis – including about non work stuff. It makes the hard conversations easier to have if you do this.
  2. Know the employee and what they can handle/accept. You will get a feel for this simply by the fact that you talk to them every day. (See point #1)
  3. Ease into the feedback conversations. Maybe you need to address three or four things with them, so start by talking about one thing only at the first meeting. If your first conversation is about giving them feedback in multiple areas, they are going to leave the meeting with you feeling like they just went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson!
  4. Focus on building trust. As a leader, you play a role in this. Provide support to the employee where they need it and follow up with them/check in as you have promised. The quickest way to lose credibility (and trust) with your staff is to give them feedback, tell them you will meet again in a week or two to discuss progress and then they never hear from you again. Worse yet, you parachute back in several months later to meet with them about more areas they need to improve on or to tell them that they have not made any improvements. Not cool! Of course they won’t be able to handle the truth because they don’t trust you!

Bottom line – giving and receiving feedback is hard. A lot of us can’t handle the truth. As much as I try and tell my wife that I can deal with whatever reason she is mad at me, the truth is, when she does tell me, it stings! We are all humans and have feelings. So take great care and accept the major responsibility you have as a leader when talking to your people. Respect the fact that they are human beings when you are delivering feedback to them. Focus on building relationships built on respect and trust – it will make these types of conversations much easier to have. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

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