It’s always a pleasure to celebrate wins with your team and praise them for a job well done. Positive feedback, which reinforces exemplary behavior is not often something team leaders have a problem with. Most team leaders understand the importance of affirmation and encouragement although some need reminding. Sometimes giving positive behavioral feedback is a matter of making it routine - writing yourself a post-it note to remind yourself to take every opportunity to dish out some positive reinforcement.
It’s the difficult conversations we have problems with. The other two types of behavioral feedback are constructive and effective feedback. Constructive is where you’re addressing a type of behavior you’d like the team member to change. Effective feedback is related to a specific incident. Effective feedback could be positive when you’re really happy with the way your team has adapted to the pressures of the pandemic, for example. The difficulty is when a situation hasn’t gone as you would have hoped and you need to address some negative behavior.
So here’s some advice for the challenging conversations you need to have when giving behavioral feedback to your team. Here are 10 important considerations you need to keep in mind when delivering negative feedback.
There’s a management mantra worth remembering, “praise publicly and criticize privately.” It just creates bad vibes to bring up behavioral feedback in front of others. You risk humiliating the team member in question and embarrassing all the other staff who are present as they do not need to be part of the discussion unless they are directly involved in some way.
When discussing issues with team members, keep the discussion to specific behavior and provide examples of that behavior. Try not to make it personal. Don't talk about things that are difficult to observe, like attitude or motive. Watch for signs of your team member getting defensive, feeling vulnerable, or under attack.
If you’re worried that a team member is likely to take criticism personally, can lead with positive encouragement and remind them they are secure on the team. Take care to explain the effects of the behavior to make it more about the impact on the team. Help them understand the why and the result so they can really grasp that something needs to change.
Stay well clear of absolutes like, “you always do this” or “you never do this.” Where the behavior is repeated, focus on the outcome - “when you do this, it has this outcome.”
Especially when giving effective feedback relating to a specific incident, you may feel angry or frustrated if a situation has not gone well. While best practice is to address the incident as soon as possible, it’s more important that your emotions don’t get the better of you. So if the incident has got you worked up, give yourself some time to cool off before addressing it with the parties involved.
Where feedback is not related to a recent incident, but repeated behavior, it’s important to be specific about what you or others have observed. Speaking about a team member's behavior generally can be confusing and they might want ‘evidence’ or specific examples of incidents so they can understand what you mean. In many cases, a person’s bad behavior is not conscious. Often, they don’t realize for whatever reason, that their behavior is a problem or that it has been interpreted in the way it has as they might have had a different intention. Being specific about what was observed and what the resulting impact was can really help clarify this.
For example, staff lacking in emotional intelligence might make off-the-cuff remarks that impact other team members. An example may be that Toby dismisses an idea in front of the team, saying he hasn’t executed on it because it’s a silly idea. It turns out, that idea was proposed by his colleague, Bob. Bob is present when Toby makes his comments and everyone there knows it was Bob’s idea. It would be important to address how Toby's behavior undermined Bob, and also how such inappropriate comments impact the group. Toby may not have been aware that the idea was Bob’s and was not intentionally criticizing Bob. However, if he did know the idea was Bob’s then he should have addressed his concerns privately with Bob, instead of dismissing Bob’s idea in front of the team. “Praise publicly and criticize privately” isn’t just a mantra for management, but a consideration worth incorporating into team culture so all team members apply it in their interactions with each other.
Once you have outlined the behavior in question, give your team member an opportunity to comment and ask questions. Listen carefully. Clarify where necessary. If they’re rambling into excuses or blaming others, try to keep them focused on the specifics of the behavior you have observed and what the impact is. If there are things motivating that behavior, be empathetic and offer your support. There may be other work-related or personal issues that are impacting their behavior. As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to help your team confront those issues and find solutions.
Ask your team member for suggestions as to how they can remedy the situation. Reflecting on their behavior themselves is an important step for them to digest the problem and be able to process a solution. Hopefully, they propose a solution that is in line with your own thoughts and expectations about how their behavior should change. If they are having difficulty conceptualizing how they should remedy their behavior then offer suggestions or guidelines on how they should behave. As you discuss, avoid prescriptive terms like ‘you need to’, ‘you must’, and loaded terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’. You need to switch their focus from why they are behaving that way, to how they could behave differently for a more positive outcome. If they have difficulty reflecting on the impact of their behavior, clearly explain the effects of their behavior and why it needs to change. Remember, the whole goal of feedback is to improve future behavior.
For example, in the previous example about Toby, a team leader could explain to Toby how the carelessness of his comments had undermined Bob in front of his peers. A team lead would need to explain to Toby that it’s very important for everyone in a team to feel safe to put forward their ideas and not be ridiculed and that Toby’s behavior destroyed that security for Bob and likely created insecurity for the other team members who felt bad for Bob and may also worry whether Toby might do something like that to them. This in turn may make it less likely they would share their ideas or they might withdraw or withhold ideas from Toby for fear that he would make similar comments about them. Only when Toby can clearly see the real and potential impact of their behavior, might they be motivated to change.
After delivering the criticism, it’s important for team leads to reaffirm their belief in and commitment to the team member. The context and intention of the feedback should always be for the growth and benefit of the individual and this should be the tone of the conversation.
The team member needs to know the team lead has faith in their ability and the team lead should reaffirm some of the team member’s star qualities to highlight that the feedback is just part of the process of strengthening their skills in the workplace.
Make an action plan of what they should do going forward. What behaviors are to stop? Do they need any training or further support? Be clear and make sure they understand expectations.
Schedule a follow-up and assess how the team member is doing with the changes and if they need any further support. The follow-up can be just as important as that initial feedback discussion. Team members need to know that you’re there to support them, are interested in their progress, and also that you’re monitoring their behavior and will take further steps if you don’t see changes.
If they’ve made positive changes, praise them for it.
Alternatively, if you don’t see changes after your initial discussion with a team member, don’t wait for the feedback session if another incident arises in the meantime. For example, if at the next team meeting, Toby were to make an insensitive comment about another team member, you would want to address it as soon as possible after the meeting and consider offering Toby some emotional intelligence training if the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
It’s often easier to address behavioral feedback with lower-level employees, but more complicated with staff in managerial roles. It’s very difficult to get team members to participate in a healthy team culture if there’s some behavior by staff in managerial positions that undermines it. Direct reports need to understand they are an example for their staff and as such, their behavior has to be exemplary. If you have issues with aspects of the behavior of staff in managerial positions, get on to it fast. In a managerial role, they are being compensated for their people skills - their ability to manage people. So their behavior needs to be on point across all contexts of interaction.
It’s worth noting that some organizational psychologists are arguing for behavioral feedback to be a team practice. The author of HBR guide to leading teams, Mary Shapiro, argues behavioral feedback should not be the responsibility of the team leader alone, especially because it’s difficult for team leaders to see everything going on. Roger Swartz organizational psychologist and author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams says, “There needs to be an expectation within the team this is a shared leadership responsibility.”
Swartz explains that when teams take on feedback as a group, it sets up healthy expectations for the team. It enables a team to be clear on their goals and the common norms and mindset of the group. Shapiro recommends an ‘explicit agreement’ between direct reports as to how they will share accountability and handle things like deadlines and division of labor.
Shapiro argues the team leader’s job should be to equip their team with the skills for giving good feedback. As a team leader, you can be a moderator as to how the team is feeling and how they think they are doing. She suggests after a few group meetings, to start asking some questions like ‘On a scale of one to five, how well is the team sharing the workload’ and depending upon the team’s feedback, give your feedback as to how you feel they’re doing well and what challenges they’re facing.
The idea is that the better groups get at determining their strengths and weaknesses and the safer they feel in sharing feedback in group settings, the more you can push individual feedback - that is where individuals can offer feedback to other individuals in group settings where individuals are encouraged to pay attention to similar feedback they are receiving from multiple people.
However, it depends on your team whether you’re able to get to that point. It might take some time and some teams may never be resilient enough to tackle this kind of group feedback which could be too confronting for some. In that case, group feedback should be confined to the safer parameter of praise in public, criticize in private.
If your team is not ready for constructive criticism of each other in a group setting, you might need to do some more work with them on dealing with conflict and building trust. Shapiro and Swartz’s method presupposes you have a highly functioning team with a high degree of psychological safety, but the majority of teams have at least a couple of team members who have personality clashes or difficulty either offering or receiving criticism. In that case, work on building psychological safety with your team. If a team experiencing interpersonal issues and lack of trust are asked to handle group feedback, you could be opening a can of worms which could make things worse for everybody by escalating a conflict.
For most teams, giving behavioral feedback is going to be a one-on-one process you tackle as a team leader or manager. However, it is important to build healthy behavioral norms in your team through collective approaches of what is expected of the team. This could be the topic of exercises, team building days or seminars, or regular discussions at team meetings. Involve the team in brainstorming and committing to an agreed social contract for behavior at work so they can take ownership over the team culture rather than it being something imposed by management. Where individuals are exhibiting specific negative behavior, you can use the ten considerations we’ve discussed in this article to effectively address the issues.