Giving Feedback in Difficult Situations

Providing feedback is one of our most essential tasks as leaders. It can also be one of the most difficult especially when we have to let an individual know that they aren’t living up to the high expectations we have for them. Despite how uncomfortable these situations can be, we owe it to the individual and the organization to correct the behavior and get the individual back on track, or if that isn’t possible, let them go. A good friend of mine in a leadership position recently told me about one of these situations and how he handled it.

My friend is responsible for executing a significant portion of his organization’s mission and carries a lot of responsibility for their overall success. He has several teams under him that each have a team chief who report to him. One of his team chiefs appears on paper to be stellar and has even won some recognition awards, but his team had ceased to be effective and was practically having a mutiny behind his back. As my friend became aware of the situation and investigated he found that although the team was getting everything done that needed to get done, the team lead was driving his flight into the ground through a lack of tact and a leadership style which made him un-approachable.

After connecting with the individual’s peers and previous supervisors, my friend sat him down for a feedback session that focused on five themes: Credibility, Approachability, Discipline, Attitude, and Leading by Example.  My friend approached the feedback from a place of total transparency, held nothing back and kept no secrets. He cited specific examples from each theme, with credibility as the central issue, and followed it up with areas where he, as the supervisor, and the other organization leadership might have accountability for the situation.

After providing the feedback, my friend told the team lead about the two options for corrective action that he was considering recommending to higher leadership.  The first option recognizing that this issue was brought to light through this feedback session and that there could be an opportunity for the individual to correct his attitude and actions and bring his team to a higher level of performance.  The second option being to remove the individual from the team lead position and move him to an administrative position.  Ultimately, higher leadership will make the decision, but my friend’s input has massive weight on the decision.

There was a lot of potential for this to be an explosive situation, but ultimately the individual was receptive to the feedback. There are several key areas to the approach he took to this feedback that I think contributed to this result.

  • He didn’t make it personal – He focused on the issues and behaviors that were negatively affecting the performance of the team and how those outcomes were negatively affecting the organization’s mission. He approached the issue with an open mind and didn’t let his ego get in the way.
  • He did his homework – He gathered information from multiple sources and perspectives about the individual’s behavior and the impact it was having on both the organization and the mission. After gathering the different perspectives he analyzed and synthesized the information into his own assessment of the situation and came up with options for corrective action.
  • He set a goal for a positive outcome – He went into the feedback session focused on how to rehabilitate the individual’s behavior and improve the performance of his team. By acting with a little compassion in this situation, he was able to offer the individual a chance to improve before punitive tactics were necessary, but gave him that option if the individual was not receptive to improvement.
  • He went in with a plan – My friend chose the five areas to give feedback on very carefully based on his research of the situation. He spoke directly and with transparency about his position on the team lead’s performance in all five areas and the impact it was having on the organization and mission. By going in with a plan he ensured that all areas were covered and that no critical areas of feedback were overlooked.
  • He deliberated on his decision – While my friend had a few options he was considering for corrective action before he went into the feedback session, he did not have a pre-conceived notion of which option he would choose. By avoiding a knee-jerk reaction to the situation, he was able to give the individual the option to repair his credibility and relationship with his team.

As of the time I’m writing this, a final decision had not been made on what corrective action will be taken for this individual, but I think the rational, methodical and compassionate approach that my friend took to providing feedback in this situation gives the organization’s leadership more options to get one of their key teams back on track to success.

What method do you apply when giving feedback, positive or negative?

Photo Credit: By Jacksoncolvett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons