5 Tips for Managing Difficult Project Feedback

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In my consulting practice, I often conduct project and operational performance reviews. One area that regularly features in my reports is the difficulty individuals have confronting each other with important performance feedback or what is perceived as negative news. This is particularly a problem when dealing with the boss or a peer.

Here are 5 tips that can help make the experience easier and therefore more likely to occur:

  1. Pre-empt the need
    Just like death and taxes, it is certain that the provision of feedback will be necessary. It is however unclear what the feedback will be and when it will be required. Pre-empt it before it becomes an issue by agreeing with your stakeholders how feedback will be shared. This occurs before there is an emotionally charged issue to deal with. In effect, you have created a contract with your stakeholders and a licence to provide feedback in the agreed manner. When you need to provide that feedback, you are merely fulfilling your contract.

  2. Incorporate a feedback agreement into team ground rules
    Similar to the “pre-empt the need” strategy every project team, as part of its establishment activity, should discuss and agree on their team ground rules. Every set of team ground rules should have a rule on how feedback is given and received. Again, the contract has been established. As a project professional you cannot manage what you have not agreed. A fantastic example of a team feedback rule is the “captain you must listen!” protocol in the cockpit of commercial aviation.

  3. Hug the monster while it is small (@ Rajeev Dewan)
    It is extremely rare for a problem to get better on its own. Yet people seem to avoid the issue in the hope it will repair itself. It only gets worse! And the longer it is unaddressed the more tarnished you will become. This often sets up an ever-worsening cycle of problem, emotional pain and further avoidance. In summary, a little discomfort now saves a lot more pain later. Now is any time that is not later.

  4. Think authentic conversations
    This is a critical element of any strategy to give and receive constructive feedback. But what is authentic conversation? The best way I can describe it- as the intersect between “acting in good faith” and establishing and working with the facts. You can see from figure 1 other combinations are obviously deficient. It is important to state your intent in the conversation. For example, “my intention is to do the right thing by the project not to criticise or hurt you.” AND not to prejudge the outcome by assuming you have all the facts. By asking a question like “ I have observed… How should I interpret that?”


  5. What you think of me is none of my business!
    For some, this may be a profound statement but if truly adopted is quite liberating. What this means is that it is all about the issue to be addressed. It is not personal. This can change the perception of what it means to be in a safe environment.  Keep telling yourself this until you believe it.

I hope to see more project professionals and their stakeholders hold each other to a higher and more constructive standard for the good of projects and the profession. Feel free to add more tips to the conversation.

(photo credit Monsters Inc. – Disney Pixar Production)

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