Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Words Will Hurt You Too!

The way feedback is handled is vital to the way the messages are received by employees. It never ceases to amaze just how careless some managers can be in how they provide verbal and written feedback.

During feedback about performance, employees have a heightened sense of sensitivity about what they are being told and with the normal “noise” that occurs in interpersonal communication, the stage is set for misunderstanding and hard feelings to develop. Being crystal clear when providing feedback during informal and formal interactions is more than just a little important.

Some managers believe that just giving feedback is sufficient. They lack an awareness about how much impact their words can have on their employees. Because employees often misinterpret what they are being told or they hear what they want to hear, the words spoken or written by the manager have to convey exactly what they mean.

Lack of clarity, use of “trigger” words (those that provoke anger or resentment), lack of thoroughness, conflicting messages, and the inability to present negative feedback in a constructive manner are all land mines for performance reviews and ongoing feedback. Employees have certain expectations about the feedback they will receive during a performance review or feedback session. They want clarity, they want to understand exactly how the manager believes they are performing and they expect to be treated with respect regardless of the message.

Managers need to prepare for delivering feedback so that the words being used are the ones that will deliver the message in a way the employee will understand and respect. Managers who think they can ad-lib or just throw some verbiage together are inviting confusion and resentment on the part of the employee. Here are some recommendations for getting the right words into the feedback:

  1. Put yourself in the employees’ shoes. Think about how your words will affect them. And think about feedback you have received. What did you think was fair and objective feedback and what did you think was unfair and inaccurate or incomplete? How did you feel in both situations? Did certain words trigger certain emotions in you?
  2. Prepare. Write down what you want to say, read it, tweak it as necessary, reread and tweak again if needed. Get to the point where you feel the message you want to convey is accurate, thorough without being redundant, and is not offensive in any way.
  3. Look at and think about each word you’re using in the feedback. Ask yourself if there is a better way to get your message across. Does a particular word or phrase convey more negativity than it should? If so, replace the word or phrase to “soften” the impact yet still deliver an accurate and complete message about the employee’s performance.
  4. Keep the words simple. Using big words to impress the employees will only turn them off and close down the communication process. If the employee doesn’t understand what a word means and doesn’t ask what it means, imagine the potential to misinterpret or conjure up inaccurate definitions of the word.

These simple guidelines will go a long way in getting your messaging more clear and more accepted by the employee. Try these next time you’re providing feedback or preparing comments for a performance review and you might be surprised at how much more receptive employees will be.