You Don’t Have To Dread Giving Feedback

When the news isn’t good, managers dread few tasks more than providing feedback to an employee about their behavior. Many fear the task will invite defensiveness and conflict. However, if managers incorporate some basic diversity and inclusion principles in their feedback process, discussions will be more comfortable and useful for everyone involved.

Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Just as it would be folly for the blind man who felt the elephant’s trunk to argue with the man who felt the elephant’s leg that an elephant is like a snake rather than a tree trunk, it is unwise to assume that one valid but limited perspective is the entire reality of a situation. Remember these principles: Differences in perspectives and actions are inevitable; each person’s perspective is unique, valuable and deserves attention; and being inclusive of other perspectives often leads to better outcomes.

In the following example of Korn Ferry’s Plus-Minus-Delta Model for inclusive feedback, Kristen gives Joseph feedback about a derogatory joke he made in a staff meeting about people in another department.

Step 1: Opening

Kristen approaches the situation thinking, “This is one of those inevitable differences; we need to share perspectives to see the whole picture.” This helps her to project a collaborative demeanor and to raise the topic in an objective manner that decreases Joseph’s potential need to defend himself. For example, she might say, “Joseph, do you have a few moments to talk about the meeting?”

Step 2: Plus

Next, Kristen explores and acknowledges what supported Joseph’s behavior. For example, she may say, “I guess you told that joke about the sales department because you were trying to lighten the mood,” or “I’ve neglected to align with you on how this group prefers to interact.” She is being inclusive by guessing and confirming what could have made Joseph’s behavior seem reasonable to him in the moment. It doesn’t matter if her guess is correct; their dialogue can uncover that if needed. The important point is that she is acknowledging his “truth” and showing that she’s not blaming him for having one.

Step 3: Minus

Now Kristen subtracts from the logic that supported Joseph’s behavior by providing her perspective. The challenge is for her to avoid negating her previous acknowledgement of Joseph’s perspective, which happens when we use words such as “but” and “however.” Instead, she uses connecting phrases such as “And …”, “My concern is …”, “At the same time … ”, or “What you didn’t know was … ” For example, she may say, “My concern is that joking about an entire group in the company results in an us-vs.-them mentality that works against the inclusive culture we want to create. Personally, I felt uncomfortable at the time.”It takes a little practice to replace “but” and “however” in one’s feedback because the connecting phrases may not feel grammatically correct.

Step 4: Delta

“Delta” stands for “change.” Kristen ends the conversation by suggesting to Joseph, ideas about alternative actions to avoid undesired future consequences or to address current problems that his action caused. This can be done inclusively by getting the other person’s ideas, or their agreement to an action the feedback provider suggests. For example, she may say, “Self-deprecating humor always seems to be good for laughs around here, and it doesn’t demean anyone. What do you think?”

Like most techniques, Plus-Minus-Delta is more effective for certain situations than others. When the other person already has been informed about their behavior, when their behavior is causing imminent and/or significant harm, or when one’s relationship already allows direct feedback with the other person, a direct approach is usually more effective. Otherwise, Plus-Minus-Delta takes much of the tension out of feedback by transforming it into a sharing of perspectives to help a person “get a bigger view of the elephant” so they can attain a better outcome. 

Tony Malinauskas is the manager of the Interactive Solutions Department at Korn Ferry, a global leadership and talent consulting services firm. To comment, email editor@diversity-executive.com.