Keep it hard but fair

It’s all there in those dismissive put-downs: “Don’t ring us we’ll ring you” and “Don’t give up the day job”. These emanate from the kind of person that brutally lists all 52 reasons why this individual could never get the promotion they have applied for.

Or perhaps you are the kind to bury unpalatable realities so successfully in euphemisms that the recipient misses the point completely.

There are endless situations in which a manager might find they have to offer feedback but we are going to focus on those sessions that you know are going to be tricky because there are some tough messages to give and hopefully act on.

Broadly speaking, the skills for conducting a constructive session are those we in the social care field tend to think we’re pretty good at – listening, empathising, and so on. But years of training and experience can disappear out of the window pretty rapidly when you’re under sustained pressure from an irate, distraught staff member with litigious leanings.

Here, then, are some general pointers.

You must prepare well, particularly if you know it’s going to be a tough and painful session. Make sure a room is available and that there’ll be no interruptions. Think about what sort of approach will help – some people respond to coaxing, some need more of a boot. And if you’re really going to tell someone they come across badly, how do you know your perceptions are generally held? Don’t you need, with care, to check your perceptions with others?

Give thought to what you’ll do if the person rejects your feedback or, worse, makes accusations about the support you have given. If you allow the session to descend to claims and counter claims, something will have gone wrong.

That wise old owl that is bitter experience teaches the pretty obvious lesson that people respond best if treated as adults. So tell the person at the start that you have some feedback which may be difficult to hear. Taking the wrong end of the stick and beating about the bush with it at best confuses and at worst insults someone who surely deserves better of you. If you end up avoiding saying what you know you should have said, then you’ll regret it and may even have to set up another session.

At its worst, managers can pursue avoidance tactics by starting to talk about their own problems. This creates some frustration for a person who thought the purpose was to receive feedback, not provide impromptu counselling for a harassed manager.

Would it be much use to you to be told, “Your communication skills are poor”? A message like that is as final as it is unclear. It gives the recipient nowhere to go, and it certainly won’t be accepted by them. Instead, keep the session focused on specifics and use detailed examples to illustrate concerns.

The person can’t dispute your own feelings, so say how you felt when they did or said whatever it was. Compare what you felt then with your more positive feelings about another situation that was handled well.

Indeed, it’s quite startling how positive feedback is underrated or overlooked by managers. Often a “thank you”, a “well done” and a “you’re a star” for staff come in from service users through the manager who either accepts the compliment as a personal achievement, or files it efficiently under “bin”. And as they never tell – let alone hand over letters or cards to – the person involved, the organisation also fails to record a positive piece of feedback on its staff and services. So treat the good stuff well. Even one simple piece of positive feedback is worth a face-to-face meeting, albeit briefly, on its own. Smiling faces and boosted morales all round.

So, it’s worth bringing in a positive element to act as ballast in more rocky waters. Give the person lots of space to talk about what influences their behaviour, what irritations are felt, what support is needed and so on.

You must finish with clarity. Be clear about what’s going to happen next and who’s going to do what – and write this down because memories of what was agreed may vary or be unfairly manipulated. Also, sort out how you’ll check on progress – a further meeting is worth putting into the diary, at least as a backstop. And last but importantly, have you the courage to ask for feedback on how you handled the session?

Tony Hunter is director of social services, housing and public protection in the East Riding of Yorkshire; Daphne Obang is director of social services and housing, Bracknell Forest; and Kathryn Stone is director of Voice UK.

“When I was…….

… sitting through an appraisal I lost count of the amount of yawns my manager did. Either my performance was more boring than I had thought possible, or his hangover was worse than usual. Feedback sessions lead to heightened awareness and your body language can be as important as what you say.” Sheena Doyle, independent consultant.

“…I visited a care home and discussed honestly but tactfully with the manager the home’s shortcomings. At my next visit – made with some trepidation – the manager welcomed me. My feedback had caused them to rethink the way they were working and were now doing so with a sense of pride and purpose. Negative feedback can be useful.” Christine Doorly, regional manager, National Care Standards Commission.

Rubbish tips

  • People are reluctant to ask for feedback, so only give any whenyou have to.
  • Talk about yourself so that the person understands that they are not alone in having problems.
  • Tell it how it is – what you say is invariably more important than how you say it.

Top tips

  • Allow time, and no interruptions.
  • Be tough on the person’s behaviour not the person.
  • Be specific – nobody accepts general negatives about themselves.
  • Keep focused on the end point: that is, better services for users.
  • Sometimes you will get it wrong -be big enough to admit it.

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