Public relations professionals depend on long-term relationships they build with clients and colleagues. But relationships are topsy-turvy. Sometimes people disappoint us. And when they do, our ability to keep relationships on track hinges on the helpful feedback we give. If we don’t offer the proper feedback, both parties can become disillusioned. Relationships disintegrate, leading to high employee turnover and client-churn.
Jamie Resker, founder of the consultancy Employee Performance Solutions, is a performance improvement thought leader working with clients in the biotech, software, public sector, health-care, education, finance, and non-profit industries, She’s found that most of us make a critical error when problems arise with bosses, subordinates, and other colleagues: We don’t say anything at all, usually because we’re afraid of how people might react—afraid of rocking the boat or damaging the relationship. “In my workshops,” Resker notes, “most managers say they only intervene with subordinates when a performance issue has persisted for a long time, or when they are about to terminate the person. Only about six percent of people I’ve asked say they offer feedback right at the moment when a performance issue first pops up.”
Lynn Casey, CEO of Padilla Speer Beardsley agrees about the efficacy of early feedback, particularly as relates to clients. “Our mantra is ‘something unexpected. No surprises.’ Implicit in the second sentence is the promise of an early start when a problem arises with clients. Think of what we counsel our clients to say following a crisis or critical issue: Admit the problem. Take responsibility. Show empathy for those affected. Let them know what you’re going to do to get the situation back on track. The same practice applies to us.”
Another problem, Resker notes, is that we usually structure the feedback we give in a way that virtually guarantees poor results. “With the best of intentions, and in an attempt to soften the blow, we give so-called ‘constructive criticism.’ Yet if you’ve ever received constructive criticism, it feels a lot less ‘constructive’ and a lot more like ‘criticism.’” Resker points to recent work in psychology and brain science confirming that any form of negative or critical feedback prompts a fight-or-flight response in the brain. Though we may want to prompt a thoughtful discussion, we’re actually inviting a defensive reaction on the part of the person we’re trying to coach.
Drawing on Resker’s work with employees and Casey’s experience dealing with clients, we offer five tips to follow the next time you have feedback to give about performance issues:
- Don’t always wait for formal occasions to give feedback. Feedback works best in the moment. Performance reviews and quarterly client meetings are often too few and far between, and also too intimidating. Far better to offer feedback in small, casual, non-confrontational conversations. A few minutes in the elevator, in the break room, or over lunch can work wonders, if handled correctly. When clients themselves provide negative feedback, Padilla Speer Beardsley seeks to bring forward a remedy in the same call or email where a problem has been articulated. “’Here’s the problem, and here’s what we’re doing to get things back on track’ is a lot more positive than a problem without a solution.”
- Reframe or remap criticism in the form of a question. Don’t tell people flat out that they aren’t cutting it. Instead, ask them to perform a positive action. Think carefully of what you’re going to say. Resker again: “So often people tell me they don’t give feedback about a boss or subordinate because it’s hard to get their hands on the underlying problem. I advise my clients to think about (and write out) the issue they find most irritating about the person in question. Then reframe that issue in language that describes what you want to have happen in place of the current performance. Lastly, state the negative business impact of the issue at hand and then describe what will happen once the change occurs. This will help the feedback receiver understand the benefit and rationale behind the requested change.”
- Set clear expectations for the relationship. Giving feedback is easier when everybody understands the parameters of the relationship. “We kick off relationships with our “Shared Expectations” document,” Casey notes. “New clients receive it with their welcome letters. It tells the client what we’re prepared to do to make the relationship and the work the best they can be. The document also states our expectations of the client. So when a problem lies with the client, we have those shared expectations to return to as the basis for discussing what went wrong and what we need to do to move forward. It focuses us all on behaviors that are barriers to our mutual goals and steers us away from unhelpful discussion.”
- Ask permission to give feedback. Always a good move, Resker says, as it helps the person receiving feedback retain a sense of control. “Asking permission can be as simple as saying: ‘Can I check something out with you?’ or ‘Can I ask for your help on something that would help me get our work done?’ or ‘We’ve been working together for two months, and I have some suggestions I’d like to run by you for how to make our meetings more effective.’
- Proactively ask for feedback yourself. Hey, we’re not perfect. We can help others give us feedback by asking for it regularly. Padilla Speer Beardsley puts itself up for review each year with major ongoing clients. An outside researcher interviews each client contact, and the firm then meets with its clients shortly after receiving the topline to discuss any necessary improvements. Notes Casey: “This is quality time, when the only subject is continuous improvement. And it’s the perfect time to suggest some changes in our clients’ behaviors, since we’ve probably already agreed to change a few of our own.”
Whether you’re dealing with a client or a colleague, giving feedback and working through performance issues can be a lot less scary than you think. By asking directly for the change we desire, we can help the business relations that matter to us become stronger and more resilient over time. That’s good communication!