A Better Way to Deliver Bad News

Is your critical feedback building up employeesor tearing them down?

The Idea in Brief

That dreaded moment has come: You're delivering critical feedback to an employee. Despite your best efforts, the conversation is a disaster: tempers flare, the employee gets defensive, your relationship grows strained.

What happened? Like most managers, you probably inadvertently sabotaged the meeting—preparing for it in a way that stifled honest discussion and prevented you from delivering feedback effectively.

In other words, you most likely engaged in restrictive framing—a narrow, binary, and frozen approach to feedback: You initiated the conversation without considering alternative explanations for the problem behavior, assumed a win-or-lose outcome, and rigidly maintained your assumptions during the conversation.

Delivering corrective feedback doesn't have to be so difficult—if you use a more open-minded, flexible approach that convinces employees the process is fair.

The Idea in Practice

Restrictive Framing

When preparing to give feedback, you may picture relevant events, decide which information to discuss, and define a solution—all before the conversation. This framing sets the stage for trouble.

Liam, a VP, hears complaints that Jeremy, a product manager, isn't delegating enough. Liam's framing—"Jeremy's too controlling"—is narrow (Liam excludes other possibilities; e.g., Jeremy wants to delegate but doesn't know how) and binary (he assumes Jeremy must delegate or his subordinates will leave and he'll burn out). During the conversation, Liam's framing is frozen (he neither hears nor addresses Jeremy's objections). Result? Neither Liam nor Jeremy learn from the meeting.

Two Biases

Why do we frame feedback narrowly—despite predictably poor results? Two biases color the feedback process. And the more stressed we are, the more powerful these biases become:

Fundamental attribution error. We often attribute problems to subordinates' disposition ("Jeremy's too controlling") rather than their circumstances (e.g., perhaps Jeremy is delegating, but his subordinates have some other ax to grind). Too busy to identify all potential causes and solutions to a problem, we grab the first acceptable one.

False consensus effect. We assume others see situations as we do, and fail to revise our framing during feedback sessions.

Reframing Feedback

To avoid the restrictive-feedback trap, watch for these biases. Consider alternative explanations for problems rather than leaping to conclusions.

Liam frames his concerns about Jeremy openly: "I've heard complaints that Jeremy isn't delegating—and some of his employees are feeling sufficiently frustrated that I'm afraid we'll start losing them. I'd like to find out if Jeremy knows about the complaints, and get his take."

This framing isn't narrow (Liam hasn't leapt to conclusions about the problem's causes) or binary (it avoids a win-or-lose outcome). And since Liam avoids a preconceived outcome, he has nothing on which to freeze. He initiates the conversation openly: "I don't know if you're aware of this—or if it's true—but I've heard that Frank and Joan are anxious to take on more responsibility. What do you think?"

Why Open Framing Works

Open framing shows you have good intentions, the feedback development process was fair (you collected all relevant information), and the communication process was fair (you listen to and respect employees).

When employees feel they're getting fair feedback, they accept it more willingly—and work to improve performance.