Giving Feedback to the Clueless

Q: I am an internal consultant. A Senior Executive in our organization asked me to provide feedback to one of his leaders who scored poorly on the company’s 360° leadership evaluation. The Senior Exec wouldn’t allow me to view the leader’s feedback report—he told me to just deliver the negative feedback to the leader so he can improve.

To make matters worse, the poorly performing leader really has a blind spot about his leadership ability. I mean he is really clueless about how he comes across to others! I can totally imagine him saying something like this to me at the beginning of the session: “I did great, didn’t I?”

I feel like there’s no way that I can really make a difference with this leader. What would you do in this situation?

A: You have a dual challenge: First, you have to obtain actionable feedback and second, you have to give that feedback to someone whom you believe is not really open to receiving it. Both are difficult situations to address. The fact that the Senior Executive won’t give you access to the feedback that the other leader needs in order to improve really sets all of you up for failure—you, the poorly performing leader, and ultimately the Senior Exec as well.

Let’s take a look at the assignment the Senior Exec has given you, and then we’ll tackle the feedback session with the poorly performing leader.


Revisiting the Request

You need to explain to the Senior Leader that the basis for achieving lasting behavioral change is found in the specific survey data that describes the leader’s performance. The only way the leader in question will ever be able to experience a “felt need” to change his behavior is if he can identify specific behaviors that are having a negative impact on others’ productivity and performance. If you cannot provide substantive feedback, your message will not be taken seriously. Speaking in generalities never serves to improve a current situation.

If you can get the Senior Executive to share the feedback from the survey, you need to focus on the particular questions for which the poorly performing leader received lower scores. Examine whether or not those questions identify specific behaviors that can be addressed.

For example, a poor score on an item that reads: “The leader treats others with respect and dignity” is less than helpful because there is no quantifiable measure for “with respect” or “with dignity.” A lower rating on “Holds meetings that are concise and productive,” on the other hand, gives the leader somewhere to start, namely by learning skills to improve the efficiency of his meetings.


You might also review the “written comments” section of the survey for clues or ask the Senior Exec for any anecdotal information that she or he may have about the leader’s performance. Providing information about specific behaviors and their impact will help the poorly performing leader to identify what needs to be done to make an effective change.

This whole discussion begs the question: What reason does the Senior Executive give for not providing the feedback himself or herself? Specific feedback requesting change that comes from a leader will have more impact than feedback from a consultant—especially when the consultant is not able to provide specific behavior data from which the individual might create a tailored action plan. His or her attempts to improve will surely fall short. Try inviting the Executive to give the feedback that his or her poor performer needs to receive.


Preparing for Effective Feedback

If you do end up being the bearer of the bad news, you should definitely take time to prepare both yourself and the “clueless” leader before delivering the desired feedback.


Preparing Yourself

First, be aware that we often assume we know how a person will respond before we have even begun the feedback conversation. In reality, you really do not know what that person is thinking or what he will say. You need to suspend your “he’s clueless” mindset so that you don’t color the whole conversation with that opinion. If you approach the conversation assuming that “he’s clueless,” you will likely create the very resistance and defensiveness you are trying to avoid.

Second, being as specific as you can, identify behaviors that negatively impact the individual’s leadership (i.e. what he’s doing that’s hurting). It will also be helpful to identify specific behaviors he should immediately implement that will help the situation (i.e., what he’s not doing that would be helpful). By being specific, you will help him gain clarity about what he should do differently.

For example, notice the difference in these two sentences:

“You need to be more respectful of your employees when you are 
providing constructive feedback.”


“I need you to give specific examples of your violated expectations in a calm voice 
while clearly listing each step in the process. This will allow everyone to know exactly what you need them to do.”

Notice how specific the second request is. Also note that it can be helpful to clarify specifically what you want someone to do as well as why you want them to do it.

Preparing the Person

Preparing a person to receive constructive feedback can be challenging, particularly when the individual does not believe that the feedback applies to them. In order to capture their attention and make them really consider what you are going to tell them, you will want to use an Attention Check that draws them in and focuses their attention. For example, you might say:

“I would like to share with you some real opportunities you have to improve the quality of your leadership. Can I share that with you now?”

Notice that this positive statement gives them the perspective of improvement.

Some people are comfortable using Attention Checks that directly cause the individual to take the feedback that is about to be presented seriously:

“I have been asked to give you feedback. I can tell you what I think you want to hear or I can help you identify some personal opportunities to improve your leadership skills. Which would you like to hear?”

This sort of an Attention Check may feel too direct to you, but it would definitely get the individual’s attention and make them stop and think! Whatever kind of approach you choose to use, an Attention Check should serve to focus the individual’s attention on the feedback that is coming while creating a sense that the message you are about to deliver is important and valuable.

Finally, be sure you are prepared with facts—the specific behaviors they display and the impact of their behaviors on others. There is no denying the facts! If you have specific data from the survey that identifies their deficiencies and opportunities, you will obviously share that.

Providing vague feedback that leaves an individual without any clearly-defined change in behavior is more about “checking the box” than helping an individual to grow and develop, and can even do more harm than good.

Good luck!