How To Give Feedback Even If You Hate Conflict

When I zoom out to my most core beliefs about the value of business in society, I think of two tenets about business done well:

  1. Business should make you a better human.
  2. Better humans are more successful at business.

It may not seem that way, because oftentimes raging assholes seem to do well in business. In fact, many of our most famous business icons are famous for being assholes. The cliche domineering asshole boss casually fires employees in the elevator. He throws things in team meetings. His team lives in fear and knows they have no room for error without facing his wrath.

No one is excited to work for that kind of boss. And it certainly doesn’t seem like business has made them a better human. So it can be discouraging that this kind of boss can seem to have a lot of success.

We long for a kind, compassionate, and empathetic boss. One who cares deeply about our feelings. And in a vacuum, this makes sense.

However, when squaring off, all too often the asshole is a way more effective boss. This is because the overly “nice” boss often behaves like a coward.

The cliche overly “nice” leader is afraid to say what needs to be said. He doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings or have anyone be upset with him. He tolerates repeated poor performance, and struggles to give direct feedback about issues. Far from virtuous, this is because it may make the leader feel bad. And even worse, secretly the leader has deep personal resentment towards members of his team. His fear of conflict leads to passive-aggressiveness.

In Kim Scott’s excellent Radical Candor, she refers to this behavior as “ruinously empathetic.” I think this is the best term ever used to describe this behavior.

In a vacuum, if I’m betting on the success of an asshole against an overly “nice” coward, I will always bet on the asshole. At least the asshole lets people know where they stand.

However… there is another option. And it’s even more effective than being an asshole. And you can still be kind!!

You don’t have to choose between not saying anything at all OR being a total asshole. The asshole leader and the overly “nice” leader both fail to compete with a leader who is candid and kind.

This third kind of leader is willing to make the tough calls and do the right thing for the organization, even when it upsets or angers individuals. But she does so with compassion and respect. She shares direct and candid feedback without robbing the other person of their dignity. While she sets and enforces clear behavioral standards, she never lose sight of the fact that she’s talking to another human being with hopes, and fears, and dreams.

Does this sound hard?

IT IS!

But like anything else in life that’s hard to do, you will benefit from methodically practicing the technique rather than riffing. These types of conversations are about as unnatural as they get, but it is learnable.

And if you can build this skill you will:

  • Have better and deeper relationships with your team resulting in more freedom for you, and more fulfillment and opportunity for your team
  • Create more growth in your business with more clients that stay longer and are willing to invest more
  • Improve your personal life outside your business with better family and romantic relationships

These are the soft skills of healthy organizational culture that are hard to talk about and even harder to execute.

Let’s dive in.

STEP #1: Start with your shared purpose.

What can you agree on that you both want?

When you’re about to share some potentially upsetting feedback, it’s important to start by clarifying what you both really want. At the most macro level, you will likely both agree that you each want to be successful at work and happy in your relationship with each other.

This may feel obvious. Nonetheless, it’s important to clarify this upfront at the beginning of the conversation. There may be some substantial differences of opinion about the behaviors in question, but at least you and your team member are both shooting for the same overall outcome.

STEP #2: Focus on behaviors, NOT stories.

When you’re having this kind of tough conversation, you’re usually feelings some #feelings about the team member and/or the situation you’re addressing.

If you take one thing from this article, here is the most important piece; you can’t manage stories, you can only manage behaviors.

Instead of telling your team member you “can tell they don’t want to work at your facility,” start with the inarguable behaviors you’ve observed. A specific behavior would be observing they’ve been late twice in the past two weeks. Perhaps you overheard them say they “were really ready for a new job.” Maybe you caught them in a training session and noticed they were telling a client how burnt out they are.

Start by sharing the inarguable behaviors you’ve observed.

STEP #3: Share the impact of the behaviors.

Share the impact of those behaviors. This is where it’s appropriate for you to share what kind of impact the behaviors are having on you, the rest of the team, and/or your clients.

It’s ok to share your feelings here, but use “I feel…” statements. Now this sounds corny as hell, but understanding you’re trying to stick to the inarguable facts. “You make me so mad when you keep checking your phone on the floor” is accusatory and not a fact. Your team member didn’t make you mad. You can, however, say “I feel frustrated when you’re texting during a session with a client.”

You can also share what meaning you’re attaching to the observed behaviors. We just need to share this information tentatively, as this is now leaving the world of inarguable fact. It’s important to remember it’s possible (and likely!) your team member had no idea they were coming across a given way based on their behaviors.

Oftentimes when you’re having this kind of conversation, it’s not due to a single piece of behavior. Otherwise it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. This is why it’s important to keep track of and articulate all the inarguable facts/ observable behaviors. If you can only remember one piece of behavior, you’ll come across like a nit-picker, and rightfully so.

For instance, being late once may not be a big deal. But taken together with being late a second time, talking about being ready for a new job, texting mid-session, and complaining to a client about being burnt out, a picture is being painted about your team member’s mindset.

STEP #4: Listen to the other person’s point of view.

Now, listen to the other person. And REALLY listen.

Since you don’t really know what’s going on besides the inarguable facts and observable behaviors, there is a chance you have it totally wrong. In our imaginary scenario, there’s certainly a chance the team member in question has lost their enthusiasm for their job. However, you may find out they’re having a tough time at home and it’s affecting their performance at work.

While you have an obligation to address and correct behavior that’s not meeting expectations, that’s a very different conversation.

One of the inevitable pitfalls in this kind of conversation is making assumptions about intentions based off behavior. Before you can continue the conversation, you have to commit to really understanding where the other party is coming from. Additionally, by making your team member feel understood, they’ll be more open to receiving feedback about the behavior.

Once you have more information, you can consider your options.

If your team member truly is unhappy, you may need to see if there’s anything you can do to be better as a leader or improve your work environment. Alternatively, it may just be time for them to move on, and they’d benefit from your help in figuring out the next step. And yes, in a worst case scenario, you may even need to let them go if the situation doesn’t improve.

But if they really do want to be at your facility and are having a tough time at home, they may just need some support. You can kindly hold them accountable to the expectations of their job, but also see if there are things you can do to help them. This could not only strengthen your relationship, but save your business from making a costly mistake and losing a valuable team member.

There’s one other reason that listening is very important. It’s very rare to have conflict that you’re not unwittingly contributing to in some fashion. In addition to finding out their side of the story, you will often find ways you can be a better leader.

STEP #5: Agree on next steps.

So far you’ve established you’re on the same team. You’ve shared the behaviors you’ve observed. You’ve shared what it seems to say, how it’s made you feel, and what kind of impact it’s had. Lastly, you’ve genuinely listened to find out what’s going on.

At this point, you’ll likely find you feel better because your concerns are out on the table. You will also have a better understanding of what’s actually going on with your team member.

The final step is to agree on action steps you can take to move forward towards your shared purpose. Based on the conversation, this could be any number of behaviors.

The important points are that it’s mutually agreed upon and confirmed in writing. You should clearly lay out any necessary deadlines and accountabilities, with clear consequences.

In our hypothetical situation, perhaps the trainer has committed to being more diligent about always arriving on time. You’ve agreed that if they’re late one more time, you’ll have to replace them. Your trainer has also committed to come to you for help with scheduling if they feel burnt out, and understands the negative impact of complaining to a client.

The air is cleared, you hug it out, life is better.

2 PRO TIPS:

PRO TIP #1: Write it all down in advance. If necessary, simply read what you wrote.

If you have a lot you want to say, take the time to write it out before you have the conversation. This will help make sure you get everything off your chest, AND allow you to be concise. You can also make sure you cover all the steps of this system so you don’t forget anything in the heat of the moment.

Before you chat, you can tell the other person you took the time to write out what you wanted to say so you could be efficient with their time and express exactly what you want to say.

PRO TIP #2: While writing it out is great, don’t have this conversation over email.

While writing it out to read is a great strategy, hard conversations are ALWAYS best in person. It may feel a bit safer to not have to say the words to someone’s face. But this almost always backfires. Communication science says that 93 percent of communication is non-verbal. That’s like… A LOT.

By having the conversation in person, you’ll be able to demonstrate your care for the other person with your body language and voice. And in the event there’s a miscommunication, you’ll be able to read the other person’s body language to immediately address any missteps.

If it comes down to it, video chat or even a phone call are an option.

But do NOT try to have this conversation this via email (or text or FB messenger).

——-

Of all the skills necessary to run a successful fitness business (or any successful business… or any successful life), communication is a non-negotiable master skill.

And the hardest time to communicate effectively is when you’re angry, or upset, or both. But just like a technically complex lift, you CAN learn how to do it. You just have to take the time to practice and be patient. You won’t be great at it at first. But over time, you will get better. And you’ll see the benefit in not just your business, but in your personal relationships.

Lastly, let’s admit it’s always going to be a bit scary. And it should be. You care about the other person. Their feelings matter to you. But if you’re not willing to truly give them guidance, you’re being cruel and unfair. At best, you’re denying them valuable feedback to improve their performance. At worst, your assumptions are putting them in a cage. You’re acting as judge and jury and finding them guilty without giving them the courtesy of talking to them. Because you’re lacking in courage, you’re hurting your relationship, their career, and your business.

Too many relationships in life are ruined this way. You deserve better. And your team deserves better.

To paraphrase Neddard Stark, it’s ok to be afraid. The only time someone can be brave is while they’re afraid.

I’ve had a lot of tough conversations over the past several years. Both on the giving and receiving end. And I can promise you, when you take the time to be totally candid and do so in a way that respects the other party’s basic humanity, things are ALWAYS better on the other side.

You don’t have to be the asshole leader.

You don’t have to be the “overly” nice leader.

You can be candid and kind.

Since I wouldn’t be Mark Fisher if I didn’t give you book recommendations, here are a list of books for further reading on this topic.

There are few topics I’m more passionate about than mastering tough conversations. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the topic or any experiences you may have to share! Leave a comment.

5 thoughts on “How To Give Feedback Even If You Hate Conflict

  1. “At worst, your assumptions are putting them in a cage. You’re acting as judge and jury and finding them guilty without giving them the courtesy of talking to them. Because you’re lacking in courage, you’re hurting your relationship, their career, and your business.”

    This.

  2. Enlightening post Mark. Thanks

    I went through some serious struggles with these topics a couple of years ago. ..so much so that I considered closing.

    I actually felt quite a bit of shame over the fact that I didn’t have an answer…and that I was having such a hard time striking a balance between being too nice and being an ahole (“I should know this stuff”, I thought to myself). At times, I did feel like a coward.

    But I didn’t quit, I brushed myself off/tried to quit feeling sorry for myself (which was of itself a source of discomfort)… and I tried to do better. Realizing I was the problem was a turning point for me.

    A lot of my improvement came from reading the books you have listed (I have read all but 2)…which I got from your reading list so thank you for that also.

    I have made quite a bit of improvement and still have room to grow.

    Peace

    1. Yes. As my friend Brett Bartholomew would say, “we are apprentices in a craft we will never master.” 🙂

  3. You touched a nerve with me. Taking criticism can be just as hard as giving criticism — we all crave approval. But, I would argue that while the “asshole” boss succeeds in getting their message heard, ultimately they may not be more effective managers.
    The path of destruction one of these wrecking balls can leave can crush an organization just as much as a void in management can leave it stagnant. Dysfunction is dysfunction whether it comes with a smile or a scream.
    In spite of its reputation, when I worked on Wall Street I worked for some incredible people of skill and integrity, and have remained friends with some.
    But, my last boss in that world…ugh…years have gone by and I still get angry. This was a situation where I was documenting every conversation due to there being so much inappropriate (abusive, perhaps) content. The nasty gets in your head and requires work to unravel.
    Ultimately I changed careers (I became a Personal Trainer!!!).
    My takeaway is that while the good communication skills you describe are vital and need to be taught, there are some people who, due to inherent personality issues (ego?), cannot learn these skills and should never be put in a position of people management.
    (Thanks for letting me rant Mark!)

    1. Ugh, so sorry to hear that Michael. But very happy you’re onto greener pastures in the fitness industry.

      Agreed, some people just don’t seem cut out for the soft skills of managing others, alas.

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