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How to Give Corrective Feedback through Coaching Conversations

Two businessmen women having a one to one meeting - managing poor performance.

Giv­ing feed­back should be an inte­gral part of a manager’s duties. Indeed, research shows that effec­tive feed­back is a major dri­ver of lead­er­ship effec­tive­ness and per­for­mance. In order for a busi­ness to excel, effec­tive and con­sis­tent feed­back, both pos­i­tive and cor­rec­tive, is key. 

Yet, many man­agers still feel anx­ious about deliv­er­ing cor­rec­tive feed­back. Pri­mar­i­ly, man­agers wor­ry that neg­a­tive feed­back will dam­age their employ­ee rela­tion­ships. And it’s not unfound­ed. Giv­ing and pro­cess­ing neg­a­tive feed­back can lead to feel­ings of anger, frus­tra­tion and self-con­scious­ness, which can impair progress and break down trust.

But is that the full pic­ture? Cor­rec­tive feed­back, when paired with pos­i­tive feed­back and recog­ni­tion is a pow­er­ful tool for improv­ing employ­ee rela­tion­ships and per­for­mance. Not only that, but a recent Har­vard Busi­ness Review study found that 57% of employ­ees pre­ferred cor­rec­tive feed­back over pos­i­tive feed­back, whilst 72% thought cor­rec­tive feed­back would improve their per­for­mance. So, when done well, con­struc­tive feed­back can ben­e­fit both par­ties — the man­ag­er has a pool of bet­ter per­form­ing employ­ees and the employ­ee is able to grow and devel­op. More­over, lead­ers who them­selves ask for crit­i­cal feed­back are felt to be more effec­tive by their employ­ees, peers and supe­ri­ors alike. 

In this post, we’ll break down how to nav­i­gate the dif­fi­cul­ties of deliv­er­ing cor­rec­tive feed­back by using the prin­ci­ples of coach­ing conversations. 

Why Is Receiv­ing Feed­back so Difficult? 

To tru­ly learn to tack­le cor­rec­tive con­ver­sa­tions we first need to under­stand why these kinds of inter­ac­tions can be so uncomfortable. 

Psy­chol­o­gist William Swann explains that one of the rea­sons we have such strong reac­tions to cor­rec­tive feed­back is because it con­flicts with the way we per­ceive our­selves. Neg­a­tive feed­back is like a con­fronta­tion to our sense of self that can lead us to feel as though our very exis­tence is threat­ened’ and induces a feel­ing of severe dis­ori­en­ta­tion and psy­cho­log­i­cal anar­chy’. It can be intense­ly unset­tling to learn that peo­ple don’t see us the way we see our­selves. As lead­er­ship coach Mar­shall Gold­smith notes, it’s far hard­er to change the per­cep­tions of our behav­iour than the actu­al behav­iours themselves.

Fur­ther stud­ies show that these threats to our self-image trig­ger the fight-or-flight part of our brain. That’s why neg­a­tive feed­back can often lead to argu­ments or com­plete shut­down. Our brains lit­er­al­ly tell us that we’re in dan­ger. Calm­ing this anx­i­ety is a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act that man­agers need to mas­ter in order for feed­back to be useful.

Coach­ing Con­ver­sa­tions Are a Two-Way Dialogue

Per­haps because feed­back is a dread­ed task, many man­agers set out to get through their feed­back as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. The feed­back is deliv­ered, the man­ag­er says their piece, the con­ver­sa­tion is over — case closed. Yet, research shows that employ­ees feel that feed­back is more hon­est when their man­agers lis­ten to what they have to say in return. Two-way dia­logue is inte­gral to suc­cess­ful cor­rec­tive feedback.

Direc­tor of the Neu­roLead­er­ship Insti­tute, David Rock, explains that two-way con­ver­sa­tions allow the receiv­er to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their error and work towards their own res­o­lu­tion. The result? The receiv­er feels empow­ered and moti­vat­ed to work towards improv­ing rather than feel­ing threat­ened and unmo­ti­vat­ed. Rock describes this role-rever­sal as self-direct­ed feed for­ward’ feed­back which becomes a sta­tus reward for them, rather than a sta­tus threat’. Just because the feed­back is neg­a­tive, doesn’t mean that the con­ver­sa­tion needs to be.

Psy­chol­o­gists fur­ther enforce the need for man­agers to encour­age employ­ees to open­ly address their feel­ings about their feed­back through the idea of cog­ni­tive appraisal. Cog­ni­tive appraisal is the process of affect labelling’ or giv­ing words to our feel­ings. Psy­chol­o­gists argue that when we acknowl­edge how we feel about cer­tain feed­back we’re bet­ter able to mod­u­late our feel­ings of inse­cu­ri­ty and uncer­tain­ty so that we’re able to learn from our mis­takes rather than dwell on them. By encour­ag­ing employ­ees to say how they feel, for exam­ple; I was com­plete­ly caught off guard and now I feel uncer­tain about my role,’ man­agers are able to bet­ter man­age the sit­u­a­tion and pro­vide fur­ther guid­ance. The con­ver­sa­tion becomes more thor­ough and effective.

Coach­ing Con­ver­sa­tions Don’t Get Stuck on the Problems

There is a ten­den­cy to treat cor­rec­tive feed­back as a whol­ly neg­a­tive con­ver­sa­tion. When man­agers wor­ry that their feed­back may be con­strued as unfore­seen, they attempt to quell the feel­ing of being blind­sided by reit­er­at­ing the prob­lem or issue that led to the con­ver­sa­tion. How­ev­er, research shows that more often than not employ­ees already know the prob­lem before the feed­back is giv­en. This is not to say that the con­ver­sa­tion should be cut short because the issue is already known. As we dis­cussed above, not allow­ing an appro­pri­ate amount of time for ques­tions and fur­ther dis­cus­sion is poor prac­tice. Rather, cor­rec­tive feed­back needs to be a coach­ing con­ver­sa­tion and move beyond negativity.

When deliv­er­ing cor­rec­tive feed­back the ini­tial prob­lem should only dom­i­nate the begin­ning part of the con­ver­sa­tion; the bulk of the con­ver­sa­tion should then be con­cen­trat­ed on estab­lish­ing prag­mat­ic next steps, pos­i­tive rein­force­ment and mutu­al dis­cus­sions about how you’re going to move for­ward. There is no need to con­tin­u­al­ly return to the issue over and again, as it will only lead to demo­ti­va­tion and fur­ther neg­a­tiv­i­ty. Impor­tant­ly, this approach is not the same as the dread­ed feed­back sand­wich’ when neg­a­tive feed­back is poor­ly dis­guised by giv­ing it between two pos­i­tive affir­ma­tions. Rather, this kind of for­ward-look­ing feed­back puts its empha­sis on solu­tions and next steps. 

Coach­ing Con­ver­sa­tions Are Ground­ed in Facts

As with most things, when it comes to cor­rec­tive feed­back con­text is every­thing. With­out clear facts and exam­ples, it’s near impos­si­ble to help an employ­ee learn from their mis­takes. For exam­ple, you tell an employ­ee that they’ve been micro­manag­ing their team but are unable to pro­vide any exam­ples that sup­port your claim. You expect your employ­ee to improve and change their approach, yet with­out a clear under­stand­ing of what actions or behav­iours need adjust­ing, your employ­ee goes round in cir­cles. The feed­back here is too vague to be use­ful. A bet­ter approach would be to explain spe­cif­ic and con­crete times when the employ­ee micro­man­aged the team and then work with them to find ways to ensure that those behav­iour­al pat­terns can be improved.

With­out a basis in fact, the receiv­er may also end up feel­ing as though the neg­a­tive com­ments are based on per­son­al opin­ions. So, remem­ber the old cache it’s not per­son­al, it’s busi­ness’ — be direct and con­cise and use con­crete examples. 

Coach­ing Con­ver­sa­tions Form Part of a Larg­er Feed­back Loop 

Cor­rec­tive feed­back should form part of a cul­ture of ongo­ing feed­back and con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance reviews. When com­pa­nies have a strong cul­ture of feed­back, their cor­rec­tive feed­back is more effec­tive and gen­er­al­ly bet­ter accept­ed. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see why. If an employ­ee has worked incred­i­bly well and exceed­ed their goals for 9 months but then falls short on a tar­get the fol­low­ing month and only receives feed­back about that fail­ing, it’s not sur­pris­ing that the employ­ee then feels dis­re­spect­ed and blind­sided. By mak­ing feed­back a reg­u­lar and ongo­ing part of the com­pa­ny cul­ture, cor­rec­tive feed­back blends into the con­tin­u­ous loop of per­for­mance reviews. Feed­back becomes expect­ed, not feared.

More­over, ongo­ing feed­back helps employ­ees to realise that mak­ing mis­takes and hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about them is not a bad thing, but rather a fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn and grow. They’re used to hear­ing feed­back reg­u­lar­ly on both their suc­cess­es and short­com­ings and so the cor­rec­tive con­ver­sa­tion is not out of place — it forms part of their per­son­al devel­op­ment. When there is a cul­ture of ongo­ing feed­back com­pa­ny-wide, employ­ees are also aware that they have not been sin­gled out but are rather one of many who receives feed­back. This, in turn, helps to quell the sense of iso­la­tion that often comes with neg­a­tive feedback.

Coach­ing Con­ver­sa­tions Are Ongoing

Cor­rec­tive feed­back doesn’t end once the con­ver­sa­tion is over. Rather, it is a con­tin­u­ous process of check­ing-in with how the employ­ee is respond­ing to the dis­cus­sion over a peri­od of time. Research shows that once peo­ple receive neg­a­tive feed­back they’re prone to iso­lat­ing them­selves from those who deliv­ered it. It’s a basic human response to neg­a­tiv­i­ty. Yet, when employ­ees feel alone and unsup­port­ed, per­for­mance and moti­va­tion take a hit.

So man­agers should catch up with employ­ees after cor­rec­tive feed­back has been giv­en and be open to dis­cussing how the employ­ee is feel­ing about it. This also includes recog­nis­ing the employ­ee for imple­ment­ing bet­ter behav­iours and hav­ing fur­ther con­ver­sa­tions if their actions remain unchanged. Research by Mar­shall Gold­smiths and Howard Mor­gan found that employ­ees who engage in an ongo­ing dia­logue with their teams showed dra­mat­ic improve­ment. In con­trast, those who didn’t bare­ly exceed­ed ran­dom chance’.

Cor­rec­tive feed­back doesn’t have to be a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence for all involved. Check out a demo of our soft­ware to find out how con­tin­u­ous per­for­mance reviews help to man­age cor­rec­tive feed­back in the best way.