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How to Make it Safe to Deliver Feedback

Dear Brittney,

I have a staff member who is diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She also has a very low sense of self-esteem. Giving her constructive feedback on her performance is painful—for both of us. I have a hard time helping her feel safe when she seems to only focus on the negative stuff. How can I establish a sense of safety and keep her from going into survival mode? I have watched her exhibit two of the three modes: flight and freeze. I’d be glad for a fight reaction, because then we could at least have some kind of dialogue even if it was a rough go.

Help Me Help Her

Dear Help Me Help Her,

Managing performance is one of the more complex, uncomfortable, and yet critical roles of a leader. The news that someone’s best efforts aren’t cutting it is hard to deliver and hard to receive.

I’m sympathetic to your challenge. I once pointed out a few spelling errors my team member made only for her to immediately burst into tears. I was shocked. I shared the feedback kindly, calmly, and with respect, yet the simple critique cut deep and opened up old wounds left over by a previous employer. As she regrouped and then explained her reaction, it occurred to me that her inability to hear the feedback was less about how I delivered it, and more about some personal insecurities and past experiences.

I share this example to point out that if you use the skills to sufficiently create safety for your employee, then her inability to receive your feedback is more about her than you. Receiving performance feedback is part of working with others. People who recoil at feedback will struggle in any role and at any organization. Ultimately, you are not responsible for her reaction, and how she responds to these situations is on her.

However, it also sounds like you know you could do more to establish safety. While I realize I’m inferring a lot from just a few of your words, it sounds like you are personally comfortable with more tension in your dialogue. Phrases like “I’d be glad for a fight reaction”, “negative stuff”, and “rough go” make me think that you present yourself more aggressively than some, and almost certainly more so than she does. Consider that you’ll have to change your approach and work hard to establish safety with someone who doesn’t present similarly. As a leader, it’s your job to do the difficult work of meeting employees at their level.

Here are a few ideas for working better with this employee:

See your employee as a person – not a diagnosis. I understand that sharing your peer’s diagnosis provides context, yet I find it interesting that you led with her mental health challenges. Yes, her depression and anxiety may make it more difficult for her to process difficult feedback. But it’s also not an excuse for not making it safe. Assuming she doesn’t use her challenges as a crutch to justify bad behavior, you shouldn’t either. Find a way to look at her like you do every other direct report. Viewing her as a team member who needs coaching, rather than damaged goods who can’t process hard things, will change your approach and ultimately your relationship.

Connect consistently. People feel safe with those they trust. They feel safe with people who take an interest in their life and show care and concern. And they feel safe with people who consistently treat them with respect. Doing this is simple, but it’s not a quick fix. Engaging in small talk in the hallway or before meetings can go a long way—asking about her family, learning about her hobbies, and inquiring about her goals. As you develop a relationship of care and concern over time, she is more likely to feel safe with you. And in those moments when you choose to share difficult feedback, she will know your intentions are to help rather than hurt.

Avoid drive-by feedback. I found that when delivering feedback to my own sensitive teammate, things went better when I set the stage for the feedback I was about to deliver. By saying something like “Hey, can I share some feedback with you now, or would there be a better time to talk?” helped her to prepare mentally and emotionally for some potentially difficult news. The fight-or-flight response is amplified when something challenging shows up unexpectedly. By giving her time to prepare, she’ll have the opportunity to get in the right mental and emotional state.

Build, rebuild, repeat. Safety isn’t something you can set and forget. It’s something you must continually establish and reestablish any time it’s at risk. As soon as your employee demonstrates signs of flight or freeze, step out of the conversation and reestablish safety. Validate her feelings and acknowledge it may indeed be difficult to hear what you’re saying. Then, reassure her of your intentions to coach her through some challenges and see her succeed. If you have to repeat that cycle multiple times throughout the conversation, so be it.

Notice that many of these ideas are not just about how to handle one difficult conversation. Rather, my advice to you is to improve your relationship. Safety is best established and grown over time and, when built carefully, becomes the foundation of trust where vulnerable conversation can thrive.

Best of luck,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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3 thoughts on “How to Make it Safe to Deliver Feedback”

  1. John Shoucair

    I understand not wanting to be Cognitive Behavioral Therapists, but it can be helpful to understand a basic CBT framework and incorporate into the conversation. One of the 10 “Irrational Thoughts” or “Cognitive Distortions ” is “Discounting the Positive” and you can’t change that habit developed over years of self-talk. This employee needs a Psychotherapist and this factor should not be overlooked.

  2. Jeracah

    I agree it is important to give constructive feedback. What is missing from the advice given here, however, is that it is just as important to also give positive feedback. When the only feedback someone hears from their boss is negative, it is not surprising that they take it hard, whether or not they are a “sensitive” person. We often assume our team members know all the great things they do that we appreciate. But they don’t unless we tell them consistently, specifically and authentically. And, even if they have high self-confidence, are NOT sensitive and know their worth, if we don’t tell them we appreciate and why them they can feel unappreciated and start to look for work elsewhere.

    Then, the approach is more of a gentle one, like “You’ve built really strong relationships with our customers and they appreciate the work you do for them. Remember that just last week Mrs. Smith sent us a glowing letter about how you helped her with XYZ. What would make these relationships even deeper / stronger and help to increase your sales would be to return all customer calls the same business day. You know our customers are often pressed for time, and some feedback we received is that the turnaround time on calls is something we can improve. Moving forward, my expectation is that all calls are returned the same business day. Does that make sense? Okay, good. What support do you need to make this change? You don’t need support now, okay, let me know if that changes. I’ll check back in with you at our next meeting to see how it is going. In the meantime, please let me know if you run into issues, I’m here to help remove roadblocks.”

    This is not what some call a “SH@T sandwich”. It acknowledges the person’s strengths and shares with them feedback to be even more powerful in their role.

  3. JennyG

    While I agree that it is important to work with staff on areas of weakness, it is probably even more productive to help them build on their strengths. Jeracah above is working in this direction. See if you can spend most, if not all, of your upcoming efforts building up your employee in ways that affirm her and her successes, while also getting to know her better and generally building a climate of trust. Do this honestly, not just so that eventually you can address weaknesses. Recognize that you may have already come down pretty hard on her, possibly unintentionally, and that she deserves something of a break from you for a while. See what you can learn, before going back to fix her.

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