Tears during feedback: preparing managers to cope

Giving corrective feedback is a task many managers avoid, because they are concerned about how their message will be received. When a manager fears a staff member will cry during a feedback session, this concern will be amplified. As an HR professional, you can assist managers in this situation by using the following five simple steps.

Normalise tears

Knowing why people cry in response to feedback helps managers see that they did not ‘cause’ a staff member’s distress. Talk the manager through the emotional intelligence model, or refer them to this article. Explain that tears are simply an expression of the flight reaction to stress. This means that the manager can reduce the risk that a staff member will burst into tears by framing their feedback message carefully.

Teach feedback micro skills

Explain that framing feedback involves using neutral, non-judgemental language. There are three steps a manager can take to do this: avoid trigger words; use behaviour-based descriptions of the current performance state; balance honesty and appropriateness. Refer the manager to Eleanor Shakiba’s article on these steps.

Assist the manager to frame their message

Guide the manager through the process of identifying what to say. First they need to pinpoint the specific behaviour they want the staff member to change. Then you can help them describe that behaviour in neutral and non-judgemental language. Ask them to check that their message is clear and evidence-based. If necessary, assist in rewording any sections of their statement which might elicit a fight or flight reaction.

Explain the four steps for responding to tears

When a manager knows exactly what to do and say in response to tears, they will feel more confident providing feedback to emotionally reactive staff. Your role as an HR practitioner is to coach the manager in applying four steps for responding to tears. Talk them through the process and provide examples of how to apply it in their specific situation. Assist the manager to design responses to their staff member which will fit their context.

Rehearse

Suggest that the manager ‘rehearse’ delivering their feedback with you. Avoid the word ‘role play’ in order to maintain an informal, psychologically safe atmosphere. Ask the manager to imagine that you are the staff member and to deliver their feedback message. React by simulating tears. Allow the manager to run through the four step process. Then end the rehearsal and ask the manager to assess their own performance. Add your feedback and then repeat the process until the manager feels confident that they can respond assertively.

Summary 

HR practitioners and trainers play a crucial role in equipping managers to deal with the more challenging aspects of people management. By investing time in coaching, you will develop the skills and confidence levels of frontline managers. And you’ll send a clear message that your business expects feedback to be provided often and well. Do you need to find a coach for a manager who is struggling to handle difficult reactions to feedback? View Eleanor Shakiba’s coaching programs here.

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