5 Tips for Delivering Tough Feedback that Fuels Performance

The ability to give tough feedback ranks as one of the most important and difficult of leadership skills. Before we go on, let’s define “tough feedback.”

Many think tough feedback is always negative, like bad news. It implies the recipient has messed up or done something wrong. That’s not necessarily true.

Tough by definition is “unyielding, firm, durable.” So it’s more useful to think of tough feedback in that context—it may be uncomfortable for someone to hear what is being said simply because it’s not consistent with how they view themselves.

Here are five coaching tips to help your clients provide tough feedback that will get through to their employees and, more importantly, help them grow.

1. The 6-to-1 ratio

There’s a number of theories you can encourage your clients to follow that suggests the best balance between positive and constructive feedback. The one I have recommended to clients comes from leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. Their research shows the ideal ratio of praise to criticism is 6:1—the highest-performing teams were nearly six positive comments for every negative one.

Getting the ratio of positive to negative feedback right is important. What made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams, according to Zenger and Folkman, was the ratio of positive comments. This isn’t the same as “candy coating” or softening the message. It’s about achieving the right balance.

2. Don’t stockpile tough feedback

This follows directly from the 6:1 rule-of-thumb. If your clients wait for a “timely moment” to deliver all of their tough feedback in one meeting, they risk setting the stage for a difficult if not overwhelming meeting for their employee. This may lead to disengagement that can fuel tension rather than resolve a potential performance or behavioral problem.

Difficult performance conversations are also best held as soon as your clients become aware of a performance issue with a member of their team instead of waiting for the “right time” where issues may lack context and fall prey to poor memories.

3. Link tough feedback to goal progress

Tough feedback is more likely to have a positive impact on motivating an employee if it’s tied to something practical like their progress on a goal. Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, proposes that “positive feedback motivates goal pursuit when it signals an increase in goal commitment, whereas negative feedback motivates goal pursuit when it signals insufficient goal progress.”

For your frontline manager clients, this also underscores the importance of establishing clear goals with employees and talking about their progress on a regular basis. A conversation about goal progress provides the opportunity for your clients to share feedback that will motivate rather than demoralize an employee. This approach to providing feedback can help your clients keep their team focused and productive on what’s important.

 4. Make it specific

The usefulness of any feedback, positive or negative, is amplified when your feedback is specific, timely and targeted. Saying something like “Look, you are consistently late with your projects and that really needs to change” is a bit vague. As you can see, there are a number of key and helpful details missing. If your clients take this approach to giving tough feedback, they won’t be seeing any change in behavior. How many projects is the employee late with? How late were they? The absence of specifics doesn’t set the stage for performance improvement.

Instead, they should say something like “Over the last three months, four of your past five projects have been completed one week after the agreed upon project deadline without any explanation. That makes our team look disorganized. What can you do to manage expectations and your projects better?”

The specifics of the second approach establish instant credibility for the manager’s criticism and a foundation for addressing the performance concern. It also provides the opportunity to have a dialogue about what can be done differently in the future.

5. Don’t beat around the bush

Most people appreciate getting bad news or constructive criticism in an upfront, straightforward manner. A 2014 survey by Zenger and Folkman found that 72 percent of respondents thought their performance would improve if their managers provided corrective feedback. That number rose to 92 percent when the caveat of “if delivered appropriately” was added. A sugarcoated message risks an employee not even realizing that their manager is actually being critical of their performance.

One coaching tip I’ve found useful, particularly when I have had to give tough feedback, is to prepare in advance what I want to say. This helps ensure I can clearly convey the meaning in a way that is constructive, not confrontational or lecturing.

Be clear about what needs to be said and say it

The goal of feedback, positive or negative, is to provide useful insights about the performance or behavior of another person. Unfortunately, many leaders mistakenly try to soften the message, which makes it more difficult to articulate the point they are trying to get across. The result is a confusing message that won’t really have an impact one way or another.

Giving tough feedback is seldom fun. However, when delivered correctly, it can be the most valuable feedback your client can give to an employee. Following these five tips will help them deliver that feedback like a leader while motivating their employee to peak performance.

Your turn

What other tips and techniques have you found to be effective when coaching your clients on how to give tough feedback?


Anita Bowness, HalogenAnita Bowness joined Halogen Software in 2014 with nearly 20 years of experience in consulting and professional services where she has enabled client organizations to leverage the talent of their workforce to achieve desired outcomes. In her role as business consulting lead at Halogen, Anita draws upon her prior HR and consulting experience in the areas of recruitment, onboarding, performance management, learning and development, succession planning, organizational development, competency mapping, and change management. Anita holds a Bachelor of Commerce with a Major in HRM from the University of Ottawa and a Masters in HRM from the University of Leeds.

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