Richard Pierce Thomas

Leadership and Small Business Consultant

“HOW'S the job going?” I asked my daughter recently, home from college for the weekend.

“Oh-my-gosh, Dad,” she said with not so subtle disgust. “What is wrong with people?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, surprised.

“My manager. I received an email from him this week explaining he is unhappy with my organization at the library. He wants me to talk with one of the other employees about how to improve it.”

“Is he right?”

“Maybe,” she said thoughtfully. “But that’s not the problem. It’s how he communicated it that’s so lame. I mean, he passes my desk all the time and all he’s ever done is smile and say hello. Never a word about my work, though, and then I get this email from him.”

I bit my lip to hide my smile while she ranted a bit longer. “What would you have preferred he have done?” I finally asked.

“Tell me to my face he doesn’t like my work, but don’t send it in an email!” she said with sparks in her eyes.

“So, you’d like him to let you know he is unhappy with your performance right then and there?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, respectfully, of course. He doesn’t need to rub my nose in it or make me feel stupid. But be honest. Tell me what I’m doing wrong so I can fix it.”

We discussed it further until she agreed to address the issue with him in person. “Are you willing to demonstrate to him what you are asking for yourself?” I asked.

“I guess,” she said, walking away with a heavy sigh. The conversation got me thinking, though, about the challenges of communication in leadership. Admittedly, while technology has made many things simpler and more efficient to communicate, it has complicated things at the same time. Like when giving an employee feedback. If anything, the multitude of communication forms have undermined a leader’s efforts to project a competent image. Ironically, my daughter’s generation, the Millennials, are criticized more than any other demographic for avoiding direct communication. It heartens me to hear then, that with things that really matter such as performance communication, she desires the direct feedback no less than her elders.

But back to the can leaders effectively deliver or receive communication? Simply, the art is in the method and when done capably, improves the performance of the team. Thus, it is essential for leadership to get it right, and following are some simple steps:

Delivering Performance Feedback

Focus on place and delivery. For place, praise in public, discipline in private. Above all else, maintain the dignity of the person you are directing feedback to at all times. For delivery, think of a sandwich—affirmation, correction, affirmation. Let them know your appreciation for their efforts on the job. Deliver the correction, focusing on the issue, not the person. Be clear what your expectations are and when they need to be fully met. Lastly, finish with affirmation. Let them know you are here to help and want them to succeed.

Receiving Performance Feedback

Focus on setting and posture. For setting, you may be confronted with feedback in a public place and you need to decide quickly whether you can have the discussion in public, or not. The goal is to put them at ease while maintaining the appropriate confidentiality. Remember also that it is difficult for many to give feedback to others. To provide it to their manager? Even more so!

With posture, pay attention to the nonverbal message you are communicating. Avoid crossing your arms or appearing in any way defensive. Maintain a neutral posture and use the three second rule—counting to three before responding to any feedback. This is really important, especially when the feedback is difficult to hear. Lastly, finish with praise. Even if you did not agree with it or it was difficult to hear, let them know you appreciate them coming forward. Remember, you are the one setting the tone for your company or area of responsibility.

Mastering communication is essential to your success as a leader, a lesson no doubt my daughter is well on her way learning. Something we can all benefit from!


Rick P. Thomas is President of Activate Leadership, a leadership development consultancy in Washington State. He consults and speaks to organizations across the country, focusing on individual and organizational achievement.