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Delivering Difficult Messages at Work

By Julie Cohen

Feedback is essential to the professional development process. As you advance professionally, you will be placed in more situations in which you will need to give feedback to others. Letting your direct reports know how well they are doing is usually the enjoyable part of feedback loop. It's when a difficult message has to be given that many managers and leaders stumble. Whether the information needs to be shared with an individual, a group or an entire organization, these instances can truly become an opportunity for all parties involved. Opportunity arises when the outcome of the interaction leads to greater awareness, learning, motivation, support and creativity as well as a call to action.

Faced with this challenge-cum-opportunity, how do you actually do it?

  • Be ready. Know the message that you want to deliver and the results you expect. Acknowledge and accept the uncomfortable feelings that you may have in taking on this role. If anxiety or fear is holding you back, refocus on the purpose of this interaction and the value that will be provided to all parties involved, including yourself. For most, this is a chance to stretch your communication skills.

  • Be concerned and compassionate, but don't "step on eggshells." By using empathy and considering how the receiver may feel during this meeting, you can phrase your message so it will be heard and will maintain the dignity of the receiver. Make sure the message comes across, though, and is not couched in niceties. And, focus the conversation on the work, not the person. Things that can be changed.

  • Be timely. Although it is easy to procrastinate on challenging tasks, this is one that is best done sooner than later for you and the person receiving the message. If the feedback is tied to a specific incident, it's best that both parties have it freshly in their mind. If it is more general, the sooner the feedback is given, the sooner action can be taken to improve the situation. Never save difficult messages for future annual reviews. It will lessen the importance of the original message since it was delayed and a negative surprise in a review can significantly impair motivation and morale.

  • Be concise. Once the conversation begins, allow it to finish quickly. If the receiver is having an emotional response, he/she may want time to regroup as soon as possible. Save other business items for a time when they will be heard.

  • Be available. After the conversation, let the receiver know you are available to support him/her and what other resources can be used.

  • Be genuine. It's OK to share how you're feeling about the process and to acknowledge the other party's feelings. A primary goal of this process is to maintain and enhance the working relationship. Considering the whole person allows you to move beyond this meeting.

Incorporating these approaches when you next deliver a difficult message will make the process easier for you and the person on the receiving end. As every situation is different, you need to consider unique interpersonal styles involved to determine the application of the above factors. Some will want greater compassion and need less support, while another may want you to be extremely concise (even blunt) with minimal compassion exhibited. Invest some time in considering what the receiver may prefer in this situation. This process will also allow for quicker action and resolution as well as more effective maintenance of the professional relationship. Difficult messages need not end professional (or personal) relationships. When done with care, credibility and completeness, the result can lead to a more engaged colleague who feels supported and valued.

Lastly, delivering difficult messages also serves those providing the feedback. As managers and leaders get more comfortable with this process, these messages will no longer need to be categorized as bad/good, positive/constructive. All feedback will be a tool to enhance individual, team and organizational performance providing the proverbial win-win to all involved.

Julie Cohen, PCC, is a Career Coach. She helps her clients clarify and achieve their professional and personal goals including greater career satisfaction, life balance, leadership development and personal growth. For questions, comments or to discuss this article, Julie can be reached by visiting Julie Cohen Coaching.

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