How To Deliver Difficult Feedback When You’re Working Apart

It starts with better planning, problem solving and partnership.

While it’s certainly preferable to share corrective feedback face to face, current conditions may not allow it. The sustained shift to remote work has crimped the communications of many leaders, especially when they’re called upon to share difficult news from a distance. The result: Low-grade, infrequent feedback that often resembles a “praise sandwich” and glosses over the delicate but necessary information employees sometimes need to hear. 

Withholding feedback comes at a cost. A study by CEB showed that companies with a culture of open communication had a 270% higher 10-year shareholder return (7.9% as compared to 2.1%) than those who operated in silence. And research from management firm Zenger Folkman noted that employee engagement rose when managers provided honest feedback, even when it was corrective in nature.

When you can’t have these difficult conversations in person, consider the following low-barrier feedback strategies to bridge the distance and ease the discomfort.

Plot the conversation.

Research shows that rehearsing the steps and sequence of an action can lead to concrete improvement. Engaging in “shadow practice” before heading into a highly charged conversation can be helpful, especially when you’re not actually in front of the other person. Start by imagining yourself in prime communication form: Calibrated voice. Measured tone. Open posture. These visioning exercises will prepare you for optimal performance when it counts. 

Once you’ve established your presence, draw up a list of positions or arguments you expect to hear from the other person. What objections will be raised? How is he or she likely to respond to your position? Can you counter with additional evidence or arguments? Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused in the moment, especially if you’re expecting a contentious exchange.

Shrink the problem. 

When we’re not talking to people face to face, issues can become enlarged and distorted, leading others to “resist and retreat” to the safety of ideas and actions they already trust. This so-called ‘endowment effect‘ is a powerful countermeasure that may produce unwanted defensiveness, distrust and escalation. When working remotely, the best way to solve big problems is to make them smaller. 

Instead of delivering a sweeping critic, try right-sizing your feedback so that it focuses on specific and recent events. Avoid an information dump that conflates and confuses details. Communicating in a slow drip rather than a sudden burst increases the likelihood that others can act on your feedback with greater clarity and comfort. 

One of my clients, an international software developer, made good use of this shrinking strategy. Instead of delivering months of narrative feedback at the end of a quarter, managers now share micro messages with members of their team every Friday in quick Zoom meetings. These small exchanges have paid big dividends, as the frequency and format of these conversations have kept the feedback loop tight. 

Widen the feedback circle. 

People rarely get better all by themselves, but it’s not easy taking criticism from colleagues — it may even cause others to seek validation from new peer groups. This dynamic can change with the creation of “challenge networks,” small-group cohorts where peer feedback is normalized and encouraged.   

Ask employees to suggest 2-3 colleagues for their challenge network based on compatibility and trust. Members of the group provide just-in-time guidance and support, widening the feedback circle and keeping communication lines open. Once managers help convene these forums, they maintain a respectful distance — leaving room for candid talk without fear of repercussion.

Not only do challenge networks alleviate the feedback burden placed on managers, but they also add new layers and depth to the picture of performance. Helping your team find additional sources of support (and even the occasional nudge) can go a long way towards easing the isolation many workers may experience while working from home. 

The unpredictability of this pandemic has reinforced the importance of exerting influence where we still can. Making sure that others receive well-formed, right-sized feedback that draws on multiple sources is one way to support them from a distance — all while building a stronger sense of team rapport, collaboration and connection.  

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