1. Check it out. It’s best to be right when presenting negative information about someone else or someone else’s unit or process or mistake. Be careful with hearsay and gossip. Better that you’ve had direct contact with the data. If it doesn’t put anyone else in jeopardy, check it out with other sources. Think of all the things it could be other than your interpretation. Check out those possibilities. Work on your message through mental interrogation until you can clearly state in a few sentences what your stand is and why you hold it. When you end up feeling or better yet knowing you’re right, go with it.
2. Delivering the information. The basic rule is to deliver it to the person who can do the most with it. Limit your passing of the information to one or as few people as possible. Consider telling the actual person involved and give him/her the opportunity to fix it without any further exposure to risk. If that’s not possible, move up the chain of command. Don’t pass indirect messages via messengers.
3. The message. Be succinct. You have limited attention span in tough feedback situations. Don’t waste time with a long preamble, particularly if the feedback is negative. If your feedback is negative and the recipient is likely to know it, go ahead and say it directly. They won’t hear anything positive you have to say anyway. Don’t overwhelm the person/group, even if you have a lot to say. Go from specific to general points. Keep it to the facts. Don’t embellish to make your point. No passion or inflammatory language. Don’t do it to harm or out of vengeance. Don’t do it in anger. If feelings are involved for you, wait until you can describe them, not show them. Managerial courage comes in search of a better outcome, not destroying others. Stay calm and cool. If others are not composed, don’t respond. Just return to the message.
4. Bring a solution if you can. Nobody likes a critic. Everybody appreciates a problem solver. Give people ways to improve; don’t just dump and leave. Tell others what you think would be better – paint a different outcome. Help others see the consequences – you can ask them what they think and you can tell them what the consequences are from your side if you are personally involved (“I’d be reluctant to work with you on X again”).
5. Tough concern. Don’t forget the pathos of the situation – even if you’re totally right, feelings may run high. If you have to knock someone down, you can still empathize with how he/she feels or you can help pick him/her up later when the discussion turns more positive. Mentally rehearse for worst case scenarios. Anticipate what the person might say and have responses prepared so as not to be caught off guard.
6. Timing. Organizations are a complex maze of constituencies, issues and rivalries peopled by strong egos, sensitives and empire protectors. Worse yet, they are populated by people – which complicates organizations even further. Political savvy involves delivering negative messages in the maze, with the minimum of noise with the maximum effect. Tread boldly but carefully. Deliver messages in private. Cue the person what you are coming to talk about. “I have a concern over the way X is being treated and I would like to talk to you about it.” Consider but don’t be deterred by political considerations. Pick the right timing. A relaxed setting. With time to spare, don’t try to fit it in the elevator. If possible let the person pick the timing and the setting.
7. Laid back? None of your business? Tend to shy away from managerial courage situations? Why? What’s getting in your way? Are you prone to give up in tough situations, fear exposing yourself, don’t like conflict, what? Ask yourself – what’s the downside of delivering a message you think is right and will eventually help the organization but may cause someone short-term pain. What if it turns out you were wrong? Treat any misinterpretations as chances to learn. What if you were the target person or group? Even though it might hurt, would you appreciate it if someone brought the data to your attention in time for you to fix it with minimal damage? What would you think of a person you later found out knew about it and didn’t come forward, and you had to spend inordinate amounts of time and political currency to fix it? Follow your convictions. Follow due process. Step up to the plate and be responsible, win or lose. People will think better of you in the long term.
8. Is it personal? If you are personally involved and you are delivering a message to someone who didn’t meet your expectations, stick to the facts and the consequences for you. Separate the event from the person. It’s OK to be upset with the behavior, less so with the person, unless it’s a repetitive transgression. Most of the time he/she won’t accept it the first time you deliver the message. “I’m not happy with the way you presented my position in the staff meeting.” Many people are defensive. Don’t go for the close in every delivery situation. Just deliver the message enough so you are sure he/she understood it. Give him/her time to absorb it. Don’t seek instant acceptance. Don’t seek a kiss of your ring. Just deliver the message clearly and firmly. Don’t threaten..
9. If you must. Sometimes the seriousness of the situation calls for more drastic action. Keeping in mind you are doing this for the collective benefit of the organization and that personal gain or vengeance is not at stake, be prepared to go all the way, even if it pits you against a colleague or even a boss. If your initial message is rejected, covered, denied, hidden or glossed over and you are still convinced of its accuracy, go up the chain until it’s dealt with or someone in power two levels or more above the event or person asks you to stop. If you have a mentor, seek his or her counsel along the way. A caution: in a study of whistleblowers, 100% of the failures spoke in general terms, tying their message to lofty values such as integrity. All the successes dealt with the specific issue as it was – problem and consequences. They didn’t generalize at all.
10. Put balance in your messages. Don’t get the reputation of being the executioner or the official organization critic. Try to deliver as much positive information as negative over time. Keep track of the losers – if you have to work with these people again, do something later to show goodwill. Compliment them on a success, share something, help them achieve something. You have to balance the scales. Pick your battles. If you get the reputation of a Cassandra or a Don Quixote, anything you say will be discounted and you’ll meet increasing resistance, even when you’re clearly right.
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