When Delivering Hard-to-Hear Feedback, Context is Everything

feedbackOne of the most difficult challenges that managers face is providing feedback to their employees or team members. Indeed, the annual review is often one of the most dreaded times of year for managers and employees alike. I don’t think anyone truly likes to be humbled, even though it’s important for all of us to know how to keep our egos in check. A healthy sized ego is required if someone wants to position himself/herself to continually learn and grow. That’s why it’s so important that leaders go about encouraging humility in ways that lead to better results – not turning people off, pushing them away, or deflating their sense of self.

The way to promote humility in the people around you is, first and foremost, by providing honest and direct feedback that’s aimed at helping them expand their knowledge about themselves and their work, to grow personally and professionally. You can help someone become great by being their mirror, by helping them see clearly what they are good at, what they are not so good at, and how they are succeeding overall, not just in terms of the organization’s goals, but in terms of their personal goals as well.

Oftentimes the feedback you need to deliver won’t be easy for the team member to hear. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest or direct about it. But it does mean that you need to be conscious of how the person is receiving your feedback and look for ways to coach him or her through it in a constructive way. This last part is often overlooked, which is too bad because what good is honest, direct feedback if the person receiving it isn’t able to internalize it?

Take the following performance review, for example. I believe strongly in the principle of simple and focused. That’s why every performance review I do for every employee fits on one page. As you can see in the example here, the one-pager covers three key areas: 1) strengths, 2) opportunities, and 3) a matrix on which I plot the person’s standing in the company at the time of the review.


Q 1 Performance Review

  • Customer relations
  • Collections process
  • Execution of new programs


  • Market planning and development
  • Retail traffic decline
  • Quality and frequency of communications to team
Low Performance Effective
High Performance
High Potential Employee A
Q1 Performance
Medium Potential
Low Potential

This team member (Employee A) had performed well in the past, which showed me that he had potential, but his performance during this particular quarter wasn’t very good, which was why I put him in the High Potential/Low Performance box in the bottom graph. When you are doing a performance review, you want to make sure people understand that you aren’t judging their overall value to the company since they arrived. You aren’t judging their value as a person. You are simply reviewing their performance over a specific period of time, in this case, a single quarter.

Making this clear can help a person be more receptive to tough feedback. After all, everyone has some ups and downs over the course of their career. Still, Employee A got defensive as we talked through his one-pager. He tried to defend the retail traffic decline, for example, which I had listed as an opportunity. When I asked him to back up what he was saying, he gave me examples from previous quarters. I assured him he was right; he had done well in this area during those times, but we were now talking about the past quarter, a period when he hadn’t shown the same results.

This is why it’s so important to talk these things through and invite people to disagree rather than just hand them their report card.

It’s through these kinds of conversations that you find clarity. When I framed things this way for Employee A, his defenses came down. He wasn’t happy about the feedback, but he understood what I meant.

These one-pagers are designed to help people take a hard look at themselves. If you really want to be effective, you have to make it your job to help people digest difficult feedback and use it to propel themselves forward. Context is everything.

Simply relaying the information isn’t enough.

Jose Costa

Jose Costa

Jose R. Costa, author of Leading With Edge: Activate Your Competitive Advantage Through Personal Insight currently serves as CEO of For Eyes, which is part of GrandVision, a global leader in optical retail with more than 7,000 stores worldwide. Costa has a postgraduate degree from Universidad Metropolitana, a Master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University and an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. For more information, please visit www.leadingwithedge.com

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