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In some ways, giving feedback is similar to giving a presentation or public speaking, you have to know your audience. Think about it, when giving a presentation about the adoption of a new software program to a group of executives, you'd be brief, use very little technical language, and would focus on the cost and benefits to be obtained. If, however, you were talking to a group of IT professionals in the company, you would be expected to use much more detail, all of the relevant technical lingo, and talk more about security risks and other issues they care about, as opposed to bottom line costs and benefits.
Knowing your audience will often make or break a presentation, and feedback is very similar. To make sure you tailor remarks for the specific person to whom you'll be speaking, I want you to consider a few issues. First is the person's experience level. Are they a rookie or a very seasoned employee? Don't be hasty. Don't just run over to them and speak to them as you would anyone else. Think about their experience and expertise. Here's why. If you speak over their head or if you speak down to them, you'll turn a shot at delivering good feedback into an exercise in damaging your relationship.
When you speak over someone's head, you're assuming they know too much. When the other person gets lost, their confidence takes a hard hit. And they very often shut down right there in the conversation, and just nod instead of speaking up to say anything. On the other hand, if you talk under someone, you won't hurt their confidence, but you certainly will insult their intelligence. No professional wishes to be addressed in a manner that makes them feel like you think they're six years old. They'll either shut down and contemplate their contempt for you, or they'll blurt out defensively to explain what they know.
If you are in any way unsure about their experience on a given topic, here's the safe play. Let's say you need to talk to them about some financial process. Don't start by saying, you do know the first step before you ever enter a transaction is to check with your counterparty, right? That's very likely to sound demeaning. Instead, start by probing. Consider saying, okay, why don't we start by having you explain your understanding of the process? That way, there's no threat or condescension. Next, after experience or expertise, think about whether the person has a thick skin or thin skin.
That's the classic way of asking whether they accept feedback very well without being offended at all, or find it difficult to receive feedback and can become easily offended. Neither is good or bad per say, they're more about personality differences, but you'll want to think about it in order to shape your feedback correctly. To know which one they are, just think about the last year of feedback interactions you've had with them, and what their average response looks like. Then of course, you have to realize that they might not be feeling average right now.
So it's time to consider the person's current mood and stress level. Everyone has tough periods of time where we aren't quite ourselves. The more abnormally stressed out they are, the more you'll have to shape your feedback appropriately, or possibly find a better time to connect with them. So those are the major components, their expertise, their history of receiving the feedback, and their current mood and stress. This might sound like a lot to think through, but it's not. In just one or two minutes, you can think through each of these.
Then, you'll be ready to think about the right time to deliver feedback, at what level to start talking, and how much you should try to give. That's the thoughtful way to make sure your employee is willing and able to effectively process the feedback you need to share.
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