Crucial Conversations QA

How to Deliver Feedback without Insulting Someone

Dear Candace,

How do you deliver feedback that seems to relate less to behavior and more to personality? I oversee an Employee Resource Group (ERG). The leader of this group, like the members of it, volunteers his time and energy to the ERG. We all want the members to thrive and progress, both personally and professionally. However, sometimes this leader gets in his own way. How do you tell a volunteer leader with a heart of gold that the way he processes information and interacts with members frustrates members to the point where they stop participating? It is important that I not alienate volunteers. I am struggling to provide feedback that will enhance this individual’s performance without sounding like I’m critiquing who he is.

Signed,
Personality is The Problem

Dear Personality,

We also want you to deliver feedback that will enhance your volunteer’s performance. You came to the right place.

To start, let’s make a distinction between personality and behavior: roughly, personality is who you are and behavior is what you do.

Walter Mischel, a groundbreaking psychologist, argued that behavior is not fixed by our personality, but is changeable and driven by situation. Different situations generate different behaviors. For example, I may have an analytical personality—tending to process information at length before making decisions. But if someone is chasing me or a deadline is looming, I’ll make very quick decisions. My behavior can change.

For your situation, what behaviors are necessary for an effective ERG leader? Identify a few high-leverage behaviors that your volunteer needs to excel in his role. Think about his strengths—the extent to which his behaviors match the behavioral demands of the work and role, the more likely he’ll succeed.

Pro-tip: when determining these essential behaviors, ensure they are actual actions and not character traits or outcomes. For example, “send out an agenda, including what decisions need to be made at the meeting and any supportive material, 48 hours before each meeting” is a behavior. “Be more organized” is not.

Give thought to these behaviors ahead of time, and also leave room for his ideas. You might be surprised by the insights from his vantage point—especially when you create a safe space for candor.

Unite through your shared mission of your ERG. Focus on what you really want long-term for yourself, for him, for your relationship, and your group. Share your healthy motive up front so he understands that your intention isn’t to focus on his shortcomings, but for him and your group to be successful.

That doesn’t mean you gloss over his actions that aren’t serving the group. Instead, use facts without judgment to help him identify behaviors that need to be replaced. For example, instead of “you are hard to work with,” share the behavior you witness: “I noticed at the last two meetings there was no agenda. Both meetings ended with three decisions unmade.”

Just because someone has certain personality traits doesn’t mean they understand how those affect other people. Consider sharing facts that reveal the hidden consequences of their repeated actions. For example, “I’m not sure if you are aware, but after you spoke at the meeting, no one else spoke,” or, “after you spoke, two people were in tears,” or, “I notice you spoke for about 50 of the 60 minutes of our meeting, yet your agenda item was one of seven. Five items didn’t get addressed because we ran out of time after the first two. One of the members drove two hours to be at our meeting and his item didn’t get discussed.”

In summary, determine two to three high-leverage behaviors that would help him excel in his role; get clear on your shared intentions and use that as an entry point for discussion; and share facts about your observations of his behavior to safely identify the behavior (and not personality!) that will help him change.

Good Luck,
Candace

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Candace Headshot

Candace Bertotti

Candace is a VitalSmarts Senior Master Trainer, keynote speaker, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown Law, a mediator for DC Superior Court, and the President of Candid Communications.

One thought on “How to Deliver Feedback without Insulting Someone”

  1. Dear Candace
    Thank you for the elaborate response and making a distinction between personality and actions/behavior. I wish more people could make this distinction and provide actionable feedback.
    I have a slightly different question related to providing feedback. What if there is a big gap between skills of a team member or employee vs. what is needed for the job. I am dealing with a situation on my team where one member was hired before I came to the team and I noticed that some of the basic things related to functional competency are not there in this individual. What I mean is more about content vs. style or even behavior. How do you provide candid feedback when the skillset gap is big.

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