How to give feedback without causing the sulks!

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Q: Steve, Captain, 44:

“As a Captain, I have to pull people up all the time in order to improve their performance. But it just doesn’t seem to be working at all, particularly recently, as I’ve got some prickly young crew members who can’t take criticism at all and sulk for weeks after I’ve mentioned something. It’s got to the point where I’m avoiding giving feedback just to avoid the sulking that follows it. When I was younger I just took it on the chin and bucked up my ideas when the Captain told me what I was doing wrong, but when I do this it only seems to make their performance worse, not better! I can’t afford to have crew getting the hump every time I say something to them! We need to be firing on all cylinders for the season. How can I thicken up their skins so they’re not so damn sensitive?”

A: The Crew Coach:

Giving constructive feedback is a really tricky business – and as a Captain you’ve got the doubly difficult task of giving feedback to people you also have to live with, so when they get the sulks you have to put up with moping and long faces 24/7! It sounds like the feedback you’re giving is not having the effect you want – actually, as you point out, it seems to be having the opposite effect. And the fact you’ve got to a point where you are dreading giving criticism and crew ‘sulk for weeks’ indicates that something absolutely has to change, and quickly!

The key distinction here is to learn the art of giving feedback in a constructive way, so it doesn’t come across as ‘criticism’. As you well know, some people react extremely defensively to criticism, as they struggle to separate the professional from the personal and perceive it as a personal attack. In addition, the younger generation of crew are often less accustomed to receiving criticism than people of your generation, as the Millennials (and the even younger Generation Z who are now entering the workforce) have grown up largely in a praise culture. They’re just not used to taking it on the chin and bucking up their ideas! This may be why you’re having trouble with giving feedback now that you didn’t have before.

If you want your feedback to be effective you need to make it exceptionally clear that it is not a personal criticism, just some behaviour or actions you’d like to see them improve on. This is much more likely to be received in a constructive way, rather than being interpreted as a telling-off.

How to give constructive feedback

Set the scene by focussing on what they’re doing right. Particularly when we’re nervous about giving negative feedback and just want to get it over with, we skip straight to the bad bit and forget to mention all the great things they’re doing. This makes them feel like you only notice what they do wrong, which can blow things out of proportion and damage their pride and loyalty. So praise, and praise often and criticism can then be received in good faith as something to improve on in a whole host of good things.
Separate the person from the performance. This is a great one for helping ensure people don’t take the criticism personally. When their performance falls short of your expectation and you know they can do better, make sure that’s how your feedback comes across. Emphasise from the outset that they are a great person and that the reason you are bringing this up is because you believe in their ability and you just want to see them reach their full potential.
Find out what they think about their performance. Put on your ‘coach’ hat and after putting their minds at rest with some praise, ask them how they’re feeling they’re going. You’ll often find that the thing you’re about to bring up is something they’re quite aware of, but are struggling to fix. This allows you to be a real leader in helping them to improve. Or you might discover something else entirely that they feel either inadequate at or passionate about, meaning that you can help develop them further.
Explain how you’d like them to improve. This is where you make absolutely certain they know what they are meant to be doing differently and exactly what success looks like so they know what they should be aiming for.
After speaking with them privately, celebrate their successes publicly. Praising someone in front of their peers is incredibly powerful, much more so than praising in private. Identify an area where they have shown real improvement and congratulate them for a job well done. This really boosts pride and will increase their motivation to improve further. Make sure this comes across as very genuine however, don’t fake it – as they will be able to tell you’re being insincere and that will have the opposite effect! Be specific about exactly what they did well or how they did it in order for the feedback and praise to ring true.
Don’t threaten consequences if you can avoid it. The first time you discuss an issue, there is no need to threaten consequences if they don’t improve, as this will just make them nervous or resentful; not ideal emotions for motivating someone to change their behaviour! If you have successfully shown them you are on their side and only wish the best for them you should not have to threaten them in order to see consequences.
Old-school shouting, criticism and aggression just don’t cut it with the majority of crew today and are very likely to see you become even less effective as a leader rather than gaining any real respect. Giving constructive feedback in a way that neither party dreads it is truly attainable if you can just take a moment to put yourself in their shoes and adopt a more gentle, praising approach.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how to turn your crew into super high performing loyal raving fans, make sure you check out our Career & Leadership Mastermind Program here.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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