Tough Empathy: Giving Negative Feedback to Normally High Performers

Tough Empathy Giving Negative Feedback to Normally High Performers (1)

Giving negative feedback is an essential part of every finance leader’s role. Undoubtedly, it’s probably one of the least enjoyable aspects of management – especially when the subject of your critique is normally a top performer. Reprimanding regular under-performers is somehow easier; whereas tackling difficult issues with your protégée, or next-in-line, can be uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes feel like its unnecessary. They’ll buck up soon won’t they?

Recognise and manage individual problems before they affect team performance
The answer, unfortunately, is often no, and being lenient can cause more harm than good. Not only might a degree of favouritism be picked up by other team members, it sets an expectation that the individual’s under par performance is acceptable. Likewise, the employee in question might not even realise there is an issue, which left unaddressed, will result in a growing resentment on your part that the individual is not “bucking” up, not to mention a deteriorating spiral of underperformance and eventual manager-employee relationship breakdown.

Normalise feedback: create a regular structure that provides for good and bad
One of the best ways to disperse the tension felt by both receiver and giver of negative feedback is to work it into part of every employee’s appraisal process. By setting an expectation that every employee, regardless of performance will have regular check in sessions, in which good, and bad, feedback will be provided makes it a “normal” part of every weekly, or monthly check in sessions.

Be straight: show compassion, but don’t offer false praise
Although you might provide good and bad feedback in the same session, never try to soften negative feedback by framing it in the guise of praise. Management techniques such as starting with the good, and leading on to the bad, rarely have the desired effect, and also feel forced. Your top performers are smart; they’ll see this approach a mile off, and it won’t sit well. Employing a tough, but empathetic approach, and keeping to the facts of what you know, works best. Allow the employee to digest and respond to feedback – it may be that they have a very valid, personal reason for turning up late every day last week, but that they hadn’t had an appropriate one-on-one session to explain.

Defuse emotions: prepare to deal with defensive reactions
Although most people say they want to receive negative feedback, in reality people react in different ways to hearing it. Even if the employee doesn’t react verbally, or immediately, to hearing bad feedback, you may notice after giving feedback a cooling off period, which may demonstrate itself through stiffening posture, reduced participation in office pleasantries or a subdued persona. Remember, top performers are not used to being viewed negatively, and generally value recognition as a high performance, so most likely they are feeling uncomfortable, and a deep unhappiness with their new status, rather than wrongly accused. Providing comfort to them by not changing in your general behaviours or interactions with them outside of the feedback session will help compartmentalise if for them as an actionable item, not as a shift in their standing.

Pull up: set clear goals that allow for positive recognition
Top performers like to achieve, so allow them to regain their standing through positive reinforcement. Once you have discussed the feedback, mutually agree a set of time specific and measurable goals. It may be as simple as resetting a number of timelines and performance targets for BAU tasks such as month-end, or more complex and involve liaison with L&D or HR for skills development.

Whatever the goal, it is essential you follow through and acknowledge completion, or success. Ensure that positive reinforcement becomes an agenda in your next feedback session, while monitoring future performance closely to avoid relapse.


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