Giving feedback: how to get your language right

Written by
Wanda Wallace

22 Aug 2016

22 Aug 2016 • by Wanda Wallace

I often hear managers say that they are giving feedback designed to help their direct reports improve their performance and progress careers. Yet, they do not usually get the results they had hoped to see and sometimes they get anger. 

Likewise, I hear from people I coach – particularly women – that they are being told they are “overly aggressive” or that they should be “more strategic”. They feel confused and unsure what these things actually mean. To a woman, especially with a male boss, this kind of feedback can sound sexist and vague to the person receiving it. The general belief among women is that men can be very aggressive and it isn’t a noted problem, but if women are even slightly aggressive, they are criticised. Getting the language right makes all the difference in how the message is received and acted upon.  

So in this third column in the series on giving effective feedback, I want to give you some language to help you present that feedback in a way that an employee can understand and act on. 

When your employee is perceived as aggressive

Rob Kaiser and I conducted an analysis of 360 degree assessments of 857 men and 857 women in the US, Western Europe and Australia. Among other things, we found that high-achieving women are often seen as overly aggressive but not because of unconscious bias. Instead they were being overly aggressive believing the job demanded it.  And, they are seen as not strategic enough.  

So what does it mean to be overly aggressive?

Many women when receiving that feedback, feel they are being punished for pushing through projects on behalf of their superiors or for being good at executing. When told they are too aggressive, they can of course feel offended and can become defensive. So let’s look first at what people mean when they say someone is too aggressive. 

Typically, when a person finds himself or herself in conflict with co-workers, there is a lot at stake for both parties and emotions run high. There is then risk in being seen as too aggressive. The “too aggressive” tag can occur for several reasons: 

1) pushing the manager’s agenda too hard

2) fighting too many battles/issues at the same time

3) expecting to win every argument

4) expecting to be right and/or to have other acknowledge he/she is right too frequently. 

Being too aggressive can also be very overt: 

1) pushing points when a decision has already been made

2) making comments in a way that is seen as confrontational and 

3) fighting battles that are not hers. 

Sometimes it might be something as simple as expecting all conversations to happen around the table and therefore not seeking buy-in from others before important meetings. 

To give effective feedback, drop the “too aggressive” tag and focus instead on which of the items listed above is really underneath your perception about aggressiveness.  Prepare an example of that single item because when you can point to specific examples of these behaviours, then you can give feedback in a way that is not akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull. 

For example, instead of saying your direct report is “overly aggressive” try using feedback such as: “Last week in the meeting on project x, you insisted several times, that you had predicted the outcome we were facing – that you had been right. The result was dis-engagement.  I felt bad enough about the outcome, those comments left me feeling further defeated.” 

When your employee needs to develop strategic thinking

One of the challenges for people who are very good at executing is that they are often given operational tasks because their superiors know they will get them done. But it also means it’s sometimes harder to develop strategic thinking and to be seen as strategic. It’s probably never a good idea to simply tell someone they need to be more strategic. Not only is it frustrating, it’s far from helpful as well. Most people don’t know what you mean when you say they need to be more strategic – they often think that means they need two free days to go away and develop a new strategy. 

So, what does it mean to be strategic? The first step in giving the feedback is to determine what behaviour is really at the heart of not being seen as strategic. 

•    Play outside the sandbox, meaning influence outside the immediate role and level of control, understanding what impacts your ability to deliver and how you impact someone else.  

•    Understand the impact of external and internal forces, none of which you can control.

•    Influence peers to increase overall results.  

•    Gradually take on larger and larger responsibilities – expanding their role.  

•    Take appropriate risks. 

•    Understand trends, anticipate what is next.

•    Think and act proactively, not reactively.

•    Focus on the most important things, invest your time proportionally to their importance.  

When presented in this way, you are giving someone the tools they need to improve their behaviour and there is very little risk of offending or making them defensive.