How to turn difficult feedback conversations into development opportunities

Structuring the discussion so comments are constructive and received well ensures it is a positive learning experience for all, says Ang Brennan

Ang Brennan

Research conducted by Insights among workers in hybrid teams has found that a third of people want more time with their managers, including getting performance feedback. The issue can be that when feedback isn’t glowing, people tend not to want to give it or hear it. This sometimes leads to managers shying away from difficult conversations or approaching them poorly.

We are all responsible for building nurturing, positive cultures within our organisations. This occasionally includes having tough performance conversations. If you care about someone and you can see that they're doing something that could have a negative impact on themselves or others, the nurturing thing to do is to tell them.

We all have blind spots or qualities about ourselves that are visible to others but we are often unaware of, which risks derailing us. If people receive feedback on these blind spots, it can help them manage behaviour and adapt and connect more effectively.

In my experience, there are a few simple ways to turn potentially tricky conversations into development opportunities that build awareness and positively impact company culture. As an L&D or HR professional these can be helpful when you, or other managers in your organisation, are tasked with conducting such conversations:

  1. Invest in understanding yourself and others

As an L&D or HR professional it is important that you are invested in employee wellbeing and success. That includes making sure that people go home in good emotional shape. To do that it is crucial to invest in awareness training for yourself and others. This is because when you know what you’re good at and how you show up for others, you can adjust your behaviours and approach to achieve the outcomes you seek.

You are more likely to build positive, lasting relationships, increase productivity and achieve any goals. Awareness of self and others can better help you identify exactly what is going on for employees who might be underperforming and how they can turn this around into positive lessons for the future.

  1. Signpost a difficult conversation

No one wants to feel ambushed or blindsided. Be honest and signpost a difficult conversation in advance – for example: ‘I'd like to talk to you about what happened in that meeting” – so that the other person knows exactly what you're going to discuss with them.

Also, ask the employee how they prefer to receive feedback – some people respond well to a very direct approach setting out the key points, while others prefer a lighter touch. Developing a growth mindset means being open to learning what works and what doesn't work with certain individuals and acting on it. 

  1. Get on the same page

As HR/L&D professionals it’s important to help managers/leaders to understand the importance of structuring difficult performance conversations, which can help all parties stay focused. Make sure you invite the other person to tell their side of the story and really listen hard. Perception can easily distort events and cloud our judgement, which can make difficult conversations even harder. 

Establish the facts – what was said and done and what were the outcomes? Listen to how the employee feels about what happened and consider where strong emotions come into play. This can help you separate fact from fiction.

  1. Stay curious

Bear in mind that most people try to do a good job – employees do not generally come into work trying to cause friction or underperform. Go into difficult conversations with an open mind, knowing that the intention was probably quite different from the eventual outcome.

Another way of putting this is to take the most respectful interpretation. This approach also sets a powerful leadership example for others to follow and can positively influence company culture. 

  1. Know when to take a breather

There might be occasions when the conversation doesn’t go as planned and things get derailed. It is important to know when to take a breather before things get to the point of no return. You can usually tell if somebody isn't feeling great about a situation; therefore the onus is on you to say: ‘I'm getting the feeling that this isn't landing well for you right now. Should we take a break?’ 

  1. End the conversation well 

Make sure there is a conclusion to the meeting. Where appropriate, try to acknowledge that it was a difficult conversation and thank the other person for listening. Again, by developing awareness you will better be able to take the temperature of the room to decide whether you need to give the employee time and space to process what has been discussed, put some actions in place moving forward or arrange a follow-up meeting.

  1. Remember that your role is a privilege

Finally, as HR and L&D professionals, remember it is a privilege to help nurture employees. And with that privilege, comes great responsibility – the way they deal with things could leave a lasting impression. Employees inevitably look to their managers for direction, so the way they are spoken to can stay with them for a very long time. 

When handled well, difficult conversations can create awareness for both the giver and receiver. They can also be invaluable nurturing experiences that lead to personal development and growth. To enable employees to be the very best version of themselves, as HR/L&D professionals, it’s incumbent upon us to increase awareness, be respectful and curious, and to focus on the growth opportunities that can come from well-handled conversations. 

Ang Brennan is head of learning and talent at Insights