What to do when your feedback doesn't land
This email I received from a recent workshop attendee describes a common, but challenging, situation:
“I have an underperforming team member that I have tried to give feedback to. However, part of the challenge is that he is incredibly passive, so I’m not sure the feedback has been received effectively. Without there being any surprises, I do want to fully leverage the formality of this upcoming performance review conversation to very clearly level-set expectations and begin to either get him on an improvement path or open the door to finding him a better fit.”
You may have been in this manager’s shoes before. You’ve prepared some feedback for your teammate that is crucial for them to take action on, then delivered it to them, but… you’re still not sure if the feedback has landed. Maybe your teammate is nodding but not saying anything, or maybe they’ve said “okay, thanks, got it” and nothing else.
Rather than simply assume you’re on the same page, your instincts are right here: you want to triple check that this person has internalized the feedback and will begin to make some changes. Here’s what to do.
Acknowledge the awkwardness
We’re going to have to lean into the discomfort of this moment here. I’m sorry!
It might feel easier to avoid this awkward conversation, or simply trust that the feedback has landed. But moving forward without triple-checking that you’re on the same page wouldn’t be fair to your teammate. As you said, we want to make sure there’s no surprises about what’s expected of them and their behavior going forward.
First off, you have permission to plainly state the facts of the moment: you’re not sure if your feedback has landed, and it’s important that it does.
This falls under the skill of “naming what’s happening in the room,” which is a really useful tactic to employ when things get tense or confusing in an important conversation. It might feel uncomfortable to try this at first, but this is one of those skills that gets much easier with practice!
An example phrasing you could use in this situation is, “It’s really important that we have a shared understanding of this feedback and the urgency here. But I can’t quite tell yet from your reaction if this feedback has landed.”
Intentionally create space and pauses
Silence can feel even more awkward than acknowledging the ambiguity of the situation. But this is the second skill that’s crucial to practice: after you’ve made a statement or asked a question, be sure to create a long pause and not say anything at all. This will give your teammate time to process and respond.
Some folks, before they open their mouth to speak, will formulate their entire response in their head. (I’m the kind of person who doesn’t know what the end of the sentence will be when I start talking, but I’ve learned that not everybody is like me!) By pausing, you’re providing room for the other person to process and say their next thing.
If you feel the urge to continue to explain, add context, try a different framing, or anything else to quickly move past your discomfort.—Stop.
Just sit there.
You could try doing what one of my friends does: she will move her hand to her face to make a “thinking” pose, covering her mouth with one finger, just to interrupt her instinct to keep talking.
Ask them to reflect back what they heard
If, after thirty seconds of silence, the other person still doesn’t demonstrate that they have heard your feedback, you can ask them to do so. You can find a bunch of different examples of how to frame this question in this post.
I usually like to say, “So, can you reflect back to me what you’ve heard in this feedback?” (Remember: 30 seconds feels like an eternity when you’re uncomfortable, but it’s really not that long!)
Again, after you ask this short question, stop talking. Give lots of space and time for them to respond!
At this stage, the person may begin sharing more about their perspective, the actions they might take next, their feelings about the feedback, or they might even disagree with the feedback or request for changed behavior. This is all great—they’re signaling to you that they’re ready to actively participate in the next steps.
After they’ve said in their own words what they hear in this feedback, identify if there’s any gaps between your understanding and theirs. You have an opportunity to partner on a solution that will work for both of you, as challenging or uncomfortable as it might be to go through that process.
Alternatively, your teammate might simply repeat back your exact words, making no indication that they’ve internalized the feedback. It might still be unclear if they will take action or create change based on the feedback. If this happens, it’s time to go into coaching mode.
Ask open coaching questions
We can use open questions as a way to learn more information from our teammates, or to help them introspect on the topic at hand.
If it’s unclear whether or not your teammate will take any action based on the feedback, you can ask: “Okay, given this feedback, what are you planning on changing (e.g. in your approach, or your communication) to be able to meet these expectations?”
Again, stop talking here and give lots of time and space for your teammate to respond. I know that asking a direct question like this can feel scary, but your job here is to be as fair as possible to the person. They deserve your directness about the situation. And you can be directive without being a jerk!
They might say they need some more time to think about it. That’s okay! You can ask them to pick a time to meet with you again to talk about it. If they pick a time that’s too far away (like they suggest waiting until your next 1:1) you can say, “I want to make sure you have enough time to process this, but there is urgency here for us to figure out next steps. Can we talk about it again on Wednesday? Would 2pm work?”
Feel free to steal any of my 20 Great Open Questions for this conversation. You’ll notice that all of these questions are really brief; that’s intentional. We need this person to connect their own dots and really internalize this feedback, which means they need to do the work here.
You can absolutely share more context, reframe the topic, and make suggestions, but remember that your teammate needs to be the one to solve this problem, not you.
I know I’ve already said this a few times, but it bears repeating: after you’ve asked each question, be sure to create a long pause and not say anything at all to give the other person time to process and respond. It might feel awkward, and that’s okay! If you try to further contextualize, provide ideas, etc. then you run the risk of this person not doing their own work to figure out what to do next, and figure out what the root of the challenge is for them.
Identify next steps
Once your teammate has shared what they plan on changing or experimenting with going forward, then ask, “Got it. Last question: what else, if anything, do you need to meet these expectations? Anything I can do or the team can do?”
With this question, you’re signaling that you’re still here to support your teammate as they make this important behavior change. It’s their responsibility to take sustained action, but you’re here to help them be successful in this process. Your thoughtfulness, directness, and fairness will make a huge difference for this teammate, and I’m hoping that your relationship will be stronger for it.