Navigating The Emotional Challenges of Giving Feedback as a Leader

There’s a challenge that resonates with 90% of managers and leaders alike: giving feedback as a leader. Especially when it involves delivering difficult feedback.

A range of emotional responses to this is quite normal, but it’s rarely addressed. So let’s talk about it.

Giving Feedback As A Leader

During my coaching sessions when I dig deeper into where the challenge lies, it’s largely with the thoughts and emotions associated with the task ahead of them. Whether it’s feedback within the workplace, issues within a community group, or friction among friends that needs addressing, navigating the emotional ups and downs of giving feedback is a universal concern.

Giving difficult feedback can evoke various emotional responses for you and these play a significant role in shaping the way feedback is delivered and received. So, let’s talk specifically about feedback in the context of the workplace.

Understanding, navigating and managing the emotional sides of feedback is a critical skill for leaders and managers if you want to ensure that it is delivered in a fair and professional manner, fostering a culture of growth and improvement within your team or peer group.

“It’s Just Business”

Before we dive in, I do want to address one often-repeated phrase that some people use to try and help others move into giving feedback more readily, and that’s the old ‘it’s not personal, it’s business.’

Frankly, when you’re gearing up to deliver feedback, it does feel personal. And therein lies the challenge – it feels personal.

Emotions run deep for leaders and managers, and this emotional investment naturally leads to apprehension and discomfort when preparing to give feedback.

From my experience as a coach and as a former leader of teams, I’ve encountered a range of emotional responses in this process:

  • Anxiety: Leaders often worry about the recipient’s reaction and fear damaging the relationship, leading to hesitation in delivering effective feedback.
  • Stress: Balancing honesty with empathy and compassion causes stress. Leaders grapple with being direct while considering the emotional impact on the recipient.
  • Discomfort: Addressing sensitive or personal issues can cause profound discomfort, making it challenging to broach the subject.
  • Guilt: Leaders might feel responsible for causing discomfort or negative emotions, leading to hesitancy or softening the feedback’s impact.
  • Fear of Conflict: The fear of damaging trust or creating a negative atmosphere can make leaders avoid or delay giving necessary feedback.
  • Doubt: Leaders might second-guess their judgment, leading to uncertainty about the effectiveness of their feedback.

Whether you’ve experienced these emotions early in your managerial journey or encountered them in complex situations later on, managing these feelings is essential.

10 Tools For Navigating The Emotional Challenges

So, let’s delve into deliberate and purposeful approaches to handling the emotional aspect of providing feedback. It’s crucial to consider both the mindsets (beliefs) and the skills necessary for this task.

1. Self-awareness

It sounds simple but it’s an important first step. Recognise AND acknowledge your emotions before the conversation. Understand why you might be feeling anxious, stressed, or angry to approach the dialogue with a calmer mindset.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea: Before and after feedback conversations, jot down your emotions, thoughts, and any triggers. Reflect on why you felt a certain way and how it influenced your approach. Not only does this habit enhance your awareness of self but we tend to forget these data points which provide insights and patterns that can enable you to manage emotions effectively in future conversations.

2. Belief Systems

Identify your beliefs about giving feedback. Uncover and challenge any belief systems that hinder your ability to provide constructive feedback.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea: The “Three Whys” Technique. When you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion around giving feedback ask yourself why you find giving feedback challenging. Or, based on this emotion, what would I have to believe about giving feedback? Once you have an answer, ask “why” again to delve deeper. Repeat this process three times to uncover the potential root cause of your beliefs. For example ‘I will hurt their feelings if I provide this feedback’ or ‘They won’t like/respect/ trust me if I provide this feedback’ or perhaps ‘ They will leave if I provide this feedback’. Then, challenge these beliefs by questioning their validity and replacing them with more empowering perspectives such as ‘Clear is kind, unclear is unkind’ (courtesy of Brene Brown) or ‘My lack of feedback will hold them back’ or perhaps ‘ I am not protecting them by not providing them this feedback – I am putting them at risk’.

3. Empathy

Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes to understand their perspective. Validate their feelings and emphasize that the intention is to help them grow and improve.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea: Imagine yourself in the recipient’s position. Write a letter from their perspective, outlining how they might feel about receiving feedback. This exercise enhances your empathy by allowing you to genuinely understand their potential perspectives, emotions, fears, and expectations.

4. Change Your Lens

View the conversation as an opportunity to bring awareness to a behavioural or performance gap, fostering a conversation about improvement.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea:
Create some time to reframe your perspective and fixed mindset thoughts into positive, growth-oriented ones. For instance, instead of saying, “I have to address this issue,” say to yourself, “I have the opportunity to understand what is getting in the way and help them improve.” This reframing encourages a proactive mindset, making the feedback conversation feel like a chance for mutual growth.

5. Emotional Regulation

Practice techniques like deep breathing and pausing to stay composed during emotional moments.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea:
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique. Inhale quietly through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale completely through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this cycle for a few minutes before the conversation. This technique calms the nervous system, helping you stay composed and focused during emotional moments.

6. Context is King/Queen

See the issue in relation to agreed-upon expectations and ensure there is a clear context for the feedback.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea:
Schedule a meeting to discuss mutual expectations. Ensure everyone is on the same page regarding roles, responsibilities, and performance standards. Document these expectations collaboratively. When giving feedback, refer back to these agreed-upon standards. This provides a clear context, making feedback more objective and constructive.

7. Active Listening

Demonstrate respect, empathy and understanding by giving your full attention and genuinely listening to their concerns or explanations.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea: Repeat back what the recipient said in your own words. For instance, say, “If I understand correctly, you’re feeling frustrated because…” This not only shows that you’re actively listening but also validates their feelings. It fosters a sense of respect and understanding, crucial in feedback conversations. For more on developing your deep active listening skills, grab our ebook: Develop Deep Active Listening Skills For Greater Impact.

8. Focus on Solutions

Shift the conversation toward actionable steps for improvement, creating a positive and forward-looking atmosphere.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea:
Collaborate on creating a specific action plan with measurable goals. Discuss steps both parties can take to address the feedback constructively. Break down the plan into manageable tasks and set deadlines – no more than 2 actions. Focusing on actionable steps shifts the conversation from criticism to growth-oriented solutions.

9. Follow-up Support

Offer ongoing support and guidance, showcasing your commitment to their growth and development.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea:
Monthly Check-In’s. It’s important to schedule regular follow-up meetings to review progress. Provide continuous feedback, celebrate achievements, and offer guidance where necessary. This consistent support reinforces your commitment to their development, fostering trust and motivation for improvement.

10. Embracing Feedback Loop Enhancement

Feedback is not a one-way street; it’s a dynamic exchange that involves both giving and receiving. Seeking feedback on your feedback entails actively inviting the recipients to share their thoughts, impressions, and feelings about how the feedback was delivered and received. This two-way conversation fosters mutual understanding, trust, and growth.

How To Idea
‘How-To’ Idea:
After delivering feedback, schedule a follow-up meeting with the recipient. Begin by expressing your appreciation for their willingness to receive feedback. Then, ask open-ended questions such as, “How did you perceive the feedback I provided?” or “In what ways do you think I could improve my approach in delivering feedback?” Actively listen to their responses without interruption, demonstrating your openness to their perspective. Use their feedback as a valuable resource to refine your feedback delivery techniques, ensuring that your approach is respectful, empathetic, and conducive to mutual growth. This reflective practice not only enhances your skills but also strengthens the trust and communication between you and the recipient, creating a culture of continuous improvement and openness.

Managing The Emotional Side Of Giving Feedback

Remember, managing the emotional side of giving feedback isn’t about suppressing emotions; it’s about channelling them constructively.

I find that deliberate practice is the key – find time to prepare for feedback and practice your awareness, empathy, compassion and emotional regulation before you enter into a feedback situation. Mastering this emotional landscape is essential for delivering feedback in a fair and professional manner.

Want more tips on giving feedback as a leader? Grab our ebook: How To Give Constructive Feedback That Is Well Received & Improves Future Performance.

Deep active listening skills

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