Leadership Essentials: How to give feedback without blaming | Epiphany

Giving feedback is often a difficult, but necessary, part of leadership. Without informal assessments of their performance, your employees won’t know how they’re doing from day-to-day. Your feedback is essential to their growth and success in their role.

Blame is toxic communication

One of the easiest ways to damage relationships is by blaming other people for things that have gone wrong, even when there is an actual performance issue. A psychology professor at the University of Washington named John Gottman identified four behaviours that sabotage relationships, and blame is at the top of the list.

Examples of blaming statements include:

“You always show up to work late.”

“You never speak up during meetings.”

“You’re late in delivering that report I need from you.”

Managers and leaders often deliver feedback in this way. If someone does something wrong, and you feel it would be reasonable to tell them, framing your criticism like some of the examples above will surely weaken your relationship and possible success in changing results.

You’ll also typically get one of these types of responses:

“You know that I have to commute through heavy traffic. It’s not my fault.”

“I’d speak up more if Marvin didn’t take up so much time with his ideas.”

“I’d have that report done if I didn’t have to do a million other things first.”

As you can see, blame often is taken as a personal attack – even if it’s a perfectly reasonable observation, and even if it’s meant well. It leads people to get defensive which also doesn’t serve the relationship or the situation.

Address behaviours, not people

If you don’t want your feedback to come across as a personal assault on someone’s character, do your best to separate what went wrong from the people involved.

Share the facts without blame or judgement of any kind. From there, invite feedback from your employee. This approach gives you the opportunity to learn more from your employee. And, they will be more open because you are actively listening to them.

Example: Joe, I wanted to talk to you because I noticed that you arrived at 9:15 am every day this week. Is everything okay?

Example: Heather, I wanted to connect with you because I noticed that you didn’t share your great ideas at the team meetings this month. What’s up?

Example: Bob, I wanted to talk with you because I received the Account report from you at 5pm today. What happened?

Acknowledge their feedback and give your own feedback.

Be clear on your position. Does the behaviour need to change? Is there any action required? If so, be clear so that they understand even if they do not share the same perspective so that they have the opportunity to adjust.

Example: Joe, thanks for letting me know what’s been going for you. I can appreciate the recent highway traffic. At the same time, it’s important for you find a solution so that you can honour the 9 am start time. What could you do?

Example: Heather, I appreciate you sharing your feedback. I agree that it can be challenging to have a voice with other strong personalities in the room and I can see that our format has made that difficult. I’m going to implement your suggestion to have roundtable feedback because it’s a structure that better supports all voices being heard. And, please make it a focus to find other ways on your own to cut through the noise. You have great ideas and it is critical that they are heard.

Example: Bob, thanks for explaining your situation. I can understand how you were trying to get it done without impacting anyone else. In the future, when you are stuck, please flag it to me immediately. The priority is to get the report out on time vs. having to solve obstacles on your own. I value that you will call out any issues that will impact our timeline quickly so that we can resolve it together. You have my support to work together on it.

You might find that it makes sense to brainstorm solutions on how to change the behaviour or get the desired results together. Wait for your employee to provide some ideas. Share a few of your own. And then, ask them to commit to one action.

Feedback should strengthen relationships, not weaken them

Open lines of communication are an essential element of workplace relationships. By delivering feedback without blaming others, you will find it a lot easier to build influence, enable change, and spark constructive dialogue on difficult topics.