Q&A: 5 Questions Leaders Ask About Giving Feedback

This post was was written by our Principal Deb Berman.

Whether it’s positive or constructive, everyone needs feedback in order to thrive in a sales organization. For sales leaders, however, this is consistently one of the most challenging tasks to fulfill.

Approximately seven in 10 business leaders say that there is something about their role that makes them uncomfortable communicating with their employees, according to Interact Studio. And 37% reported they are actually uncomfortable delivering feedback about an employee’s performance that the employee could take negatively.

However, if you want your organization to scale, it is crucial that you learn how to help your employees grow and, crucial that you know when it is time to let someone go. It is difficult, but it all lies in how you deliver difficult messages. Here are five of the most common questions I receive from sales leaders regarding how to deliver feedback.  

1. How often should leaders provide feedback?

In a Leadership IQ study, just 29% of employees said they “always” know if their performance is where it should be. That percentage should be much higher, as employees should pretty much always know where they stand.

There are two types of feedback: situational and ongoing. When something happens—good or bad—it is not only appropriate to provide feedback relatively quickly, it can help to foster and grow the kind of talent and leadership that you want on your team. Specifically, if someone makes a big mistake, it’s not usually appropriate to call it out directly in the moment to save them from being embarrassed in front of their colleagues, or a client. It is, however, important to address the issue later that day or the following day in private. On the flip side, if somebody does something great, they should be recognized right away and as appropriate, in front of colleagues.

Within sales organizations, it is the standard to have a one-on-one meeting on a weekly basis to talk through specifics of deals and to review how things are going. These standing meetings should be your time to discuss what employees are doing well or how they could improve on an ongoing basis.  Shying away from giving the more difficult, constructive feedback doesn’t do anyone any favors.

2. How can leaders make positive feedback more actionable?

Developmental feedback is linked with business outcomes, according to a Stanford study published in the Harvard Business Review. Women are less likely than men to receive actionable feedback from leaders. You can change that.

Think about the forum in which you’re providing the feedback. Team meetings are a great place to start. For example, you can tell a team member who has been performing well, “Jane, you’re doing great on this account. Can you tell everyone how you overcame the challenge with the client this week?” Have it become a verbal case study.

This is a way of showing the entire team how one person looked at a challenge and overcame it. At the same time, it’s a method of specifically acknowledging someone who has been performing well. This will create a culture in which good work is recognized beyond, “Good job with this account.”

3. What is the best approach to take when delivering critical feedback?

As a manager, it might feel cathartic to call out thoughtless behavior. However, as you probably know, that’s never a good idea. Your own need for catharsis, or your own need to squelch something, should not be at the forefront. What should be at the forefront rather is what’s driving the need for you to comment and the consequences if you do.

Embarrassing someone is not an effective way to promote growth. It rarely gets you to a desired outcome. Instead, handle it with dignity and grace. If you create a culture of fear and embarrass your team members, people will feel embarrassed and scared to go out on a limb. It won’t just affect the person you addressed, but the ancillary team will interpret how you acted. You will create an environment in which people will strive to stay under the radar.

What is the correct approach? Create a safe space for constructive conversations to emerge. Be specific. For example, “You don’t follow up with clients in a timely enough fashion. Look at the last three emails from your top deals and see how long it took you to respond.  That timing doesn’t reflect the urgency we need on the team to get deals done.” If that hits a nerve, and the person gets emotional, it’s okay. You can say, “This isn’t personal. The client emailed you on Friday, and you didn’t reply until Tuesday. This is our biggest client. It’s coachable, and it’s something we can do differently next time. ”

You need to talk about something specific, not something that attacks that person’s self-worth. The more specific you are, the easier it is to manage emotions.

4. What if the team member becomes defensive?

It can be really powerful to name when someone is being defensive by saying, “Listen, I’m invested in your career trajectory. This is a weakness we’ve bumped up against before. I’m not sure that you’ve necessarily identified the next steps in order to move on. When you push back and blame your mistakes on other things, it makes me feel like you’re being defensive.”

Call it out in private, but explain why you care about that particular behavior. Tell them, “I want you to do this because this is how you can grow your career trajectory. When you push back on constructive criticism, you hinder your own success.”

5. At what point do you let someone go?

This is difficult to answer because at the end of the day you’re talking about a person you have probably invested a lot of time in, you may have hired them, and you might even really like them personally.  No one wants to be let go, and no one wants to have to do it. It’s important to acknowledge that this as something that’s extremely challenging to do. As a manager, it’s important to tease out if the person’s behavior can change or if the relationship is just fundamentally a mismatch. There is a line in the sand that the manager needs to identify and then manage to.

Determine quickly if you think they can  be coached.  If they are willing to work on improving, then map out a plan for 30, 60 and 90 days. Lay out how you will help, and what you need them to do. That is the correct approach.

If the relationship is a mismatch, it’s not worth trying to coach the person to become something fundamentally different. When the realization comes about that things are not going to change, it’s important to be forthright and document what is wrong. Letting them move on and coaching them out of the organization can actually be a gift to that person’s career.

Feedback should not be one-sided

Just as you are learning how to deliver feedback to your employees, they should be learning how to communicate with you as well. It is up to you to create an environment in which they feel comfortable discussing difficult topics. Ask insightful questions about your leadership style; share situations you’ve learned from in the past; own your mistakes.

Want to continue the conversation? Let’s talk!

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