Awkward moment.

How do I say “that wasn’t good enough” nicely?

“How do I say ‘that wasn’t good enough’ without upsetting them or causing an argument? It is too hard.” If I had a pound for every time a client has said this to me whilst they shift uncomfortably in their chair, I might not quite be retired but my weekend I’m sure would be five days rather than two!

Regardless of how senior or experienced my clients are, everyone seems to struggle with how to deliver face to face improvement feedback to a colleague or employee. Instinctively we are scared that people will take any type of improvement feedback as criticism and we shy away from any potential conflict. Probably not helped by the term ‘constructive criticism’ which just makes the other person defensive before you have said anything!

Companies focus a great deal of time and effort to ensure that managers are skilled at giving feedback to their direct reports. Central to The Geek People’s philosophy about managing performance is the power of regular feedback between the employee and manager throughout the year. In fact Em eloquently captured this point in her outstanding blog fundamentally we believe a more radical shift is required to ditch the annual performance review altogether and encourage regular coaching conversations throughout the year.

Just giving the tools and training to managers will only get organisations so far, because actually everyone needs to get comfortable with giving feedback. The money invested by firms in uber-sophisticated 360 tools that generate thousands of requests during the end of year performance cycle may not have paid dividends. They are a part of the reason the whole process ties the business up in knots for weeks on end and generally employees get too many requests to give feedback (and therefore can’t respond to them all) or they respond to all criteria with the same rating as it is quick and easy. A complete waste of time for those receiving the feedback and those submitting it!

I think the challenge of delivering feedback is not unique to business, watching reality tv shows with judging panels like The Voice where the judges are unable to tell the contestants why they have been rejected shows how tricky communicating honestly and sensitively can be with other people.

So how do we go about making a change that will ensure feedback is frequent, meaningful and motivating for our teams? Here are some tips to help:

1. Create an open culture – encourage a culture where feedback is encouraged and discussed. When did you last ask your direct reports for feedback on yourself?

2. Be aware of your unconscious bias – watch that you don’t fall foul of confirmation bias where you only select evidence to support your negative view and miss evidence to the contrary. Check yourself by getting feedback from a range of stakeholders and colleagues.

3. Watch your use of conjunctions: how often do you make a statement and contradict yourself before you have finished your sentence (“The proposal was excellent however they were looking for more detail in the recommendations”) or respond to someone with (“Yes, but….”)? These contradictions leave the receiver feeling the praise was discounted immediately. Substitute ‘but’ or ‘however’ with ‘and’ and witness a shift in how the other person listens and responds.

4. Focus on Strengths – Most performance management discussions are weighted towards how to improve certain skills. Do you tell your team where you spot their strengths in their day to day work? Show confidence and belief in their ability – reinforce what is working regularly. The most common reason that I find managers don’t do this frequently enough is because they think ‘it is obvious’.

5. Watch for strong reactions – they say the cause of a strong reaction is often a mirror of our own behaviour. Recognise any strong emotions that someone provokes in you and honestly ask yourself what are they reminding you of?

6. Observe don’t judge – we are more open to feedback when we feel we aren’t being evaluated. Playback what you notice ‘You seemed disengaged in that meeting’ – and then ask for their thoughts rather than adding your judgement ‘….I sense that is because you don’t seem to like your role in the project’.

7. Practise – have a trusted peer, HR colleague or even your manager to run through in advance what you are going to say in a tricky conversation. Much better to seek some feedback in advance and to help you feel confident in the way you will approach a sticky conversation.

8. Say thank you – BCG’s research of 200,000 employees on the key drivers of engagement found that the number one factor is being appreciated and valued – so if they did a good job then say it!

So, who are you now going to give feedback to? And do you need to rely on a Will-i-am metaphor to get your message across or can you do it yourself?

Need help? We would be thrilled to hear from you.

Stephanie Hopper is co-founder of The Geek People @thegeekpeople. She specialises in leadership development, performance management and positive psychology at work. You can follow her @hoppersteph