“Hey Jane, do you have the data for me? We really need it.” A young investigator kindly and sheepishly inquires with her postdoc.

Apathetically and flippantly, she responds, “Oh, sorry, Anna. I didn’t have time to get to it.”

It’s been two weeks since the agreed experimental deadlines. Her collaborators are furious about working with the postdoc that she assigned to the project. The young investigator knows her postdoc is not meeting the experimental deliverables, and has to confront the situation. Unfortunately, the postdoc has a tendency of being sensitive when receiving feedback. Anna doesn’t want to upset her, which may further jeopardize the project. What should she do?

It’s a very real scenario. Junior managers, myself included, experience this situation often. Unfortunately, as the principal investigator and Jane’s manager, it’s up to Anna to deliver that difficult feedback.

Not many people like giving critical feedback, especially not if they’re a manager who tends to be sensitive to other people’s feelings. The unfortunate truth is that, as a manager, it’s a critical part of the job to ensure that your team is held accountable for the agreed deliverables.

As a young manager, I used to struggle with this. I went from being an aggressive despot, to a passive aggressive manager who was vague and spoke in platitudes. The unfortunate result was either my directs would lie to me to avoid being yelled at or they would become frustrated or even more lackadaisical toward deliverables. It was a constant source of frustration for me and my superiors, which wasted time and money.

Throughout the years, I’ve found that the primary problem was with my mindset. It was all in my head , and my own personal beliefs about what it meant to give feedback. Research done by Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist, nicely illustrates how we perceive giving or receiving feedback influences how we perform, and ultimately succeed at reaching our goals.

Giving feedback doesn’t have to mean being aggressive with your lab members, nor does it mean you have to be overly friendly to them. It just means, helping your directs to reach their goal. Therefore, you have to change your mindset. There are three mindsets that tend to exacerbate the difficulty of giving feedback as a manger; Fights, Failures, & Focus.

  1. You believe a fight may ensue from the feedback. You’re a pacifist and you want to avoid a confrontation at all cost. You tend to stay away from people who are aggressive or antagonistic. We recognize them as being loud, opinionated, and displaying tense body stances when they’re challenged. You probably told yourself, “I went into science to avoid these kinds of people, for Darwin’s sake!”. They remind you of the school house bullies growing up who wanted to fight you, just because they could.
  2. You’re afraid of failing. You hate failing and your team is a reflection on you. You view their failures as your own weakness.
  3. You’ve lost focus. Are you too focused on each and every deliverable, and micromanaging your people? Or are you too focused on the end goal, at the sacrifice of your people’s performance? There are always at least 2 goals when managing directs; your goals and their goals. Which goals do you focus on?

These three mindsets can be changed with some simple steps that will help you.

Loss of focus? Focus on the science.
As far as focus is concerned, focusing on your research goals is necessary. However, your people are the ones helping you reach those goals. Therefore, helping your people reach their mutually negotiated goals, can be great for the both of you.
In Getting To Yes by William Ury, he uses a strategy of Yes, No, Yes approach that helps re-assess difficult negotiations. The rationale is that you’re first focus is on your own yes, which is on the main goal of the science. Then the second focus is on saying no to their missed deliverables and the associated excuse, and then the final focus is on the agreed upon deliverables which is the basis of the last yes.
For example, if someone hasn’t delivered, you can have a dialogue with a series of questions. “Where’s the data? Unfortunately it is late. Didn’t you state that you were going to deliver on this experiment? Is there something preventing you? If there is, how can I help?” The last question lets her know that your feedback is supportive.

Afraid of failing? Feedback, not failure.
My dad, who was a former master chief in the U.S. Navy, used to say, “It’s not failure. It’s feedback. The only way someone can fail is by quitting.” I’m a big believer in this aphorism. Therefore, understand that feedback is part of the process to improving for both you, as a manager, and her, as a direct. There will be missteps, errors, or ill feelings along the way, but they’re all part of the process toward successfully meeting goals. So, relabel these “failures” as “feedbacks” to help change your mindset about fear of failures.
In Simon Sinek’s new book, Leaders Eat Last, he emphasizes that a focus on the people who are helping you, will invariably lead to your own success. They joined your lab to further develop their own career. Therefore, they share your vision. You can help them by reminding them of what they’re learning. Remind them that their experiences and feedbacks, whether easy or difficult, it’s there to benefit them.
For example, you can remind your direct, “I know that this feedback is hard to accept, but this is going to help you to reach your goals.” Reaffirm them, that you’re there to help them to succeed in their career.

Avoiding a fight? Fight for the vision.
Now you may just end up with a person who will challenge you, which can be good for you, as a leader. It’s always good to avoid what, Yale Psychology Professor, Irving Janis calls groupthink. On the other hand, you may end up ultimately giving feedback to an aggressive sensitive person with a fixed mindset (that’s why hiring is an important part of building a great team). Therefore, it is best to remind yourself that it’s your responsibility to oversee the success of the research vision. This is the reason why your department, institute, or research group has hired you. Sometimes directs may not be receptive to the critical feedback that’s there to help them improve and to help them reach their goal.
In Susan Cain’s book, Quite, she illustrates that people, who tend to be introverts and non-confrontational, can have a dedicated focus on the overall goal and vision of everyone. They see themselves as protector of the entire team. This helps them to not focus on individual agreements, but they frame these disputes within a bigger picture. This allows them to not take things personally, and don’t harbinger ill feelings toward the aggressor.
For example, this is where you remind the direct, and yourself, about the vision. “Listen, I understand that you’re upset. However, if you can’t, or won’t perform, then this may not be the environment for you.”. Not everyone will get along, and people have different management styles. If that’s the case, then admitting it, accepting it, and moving on are the best steps to take.

Team leader having difficult conversation with team member.Remember to always focus on the success of the science, and to let that focus manage your decisions. Remind yourself that the science is the main goal. It will help adjust your mindset about the importance of giving all types of feedback. Believe that it is for the betterment of the research vision.

Have you had given a difficult feedback that didn’t go so well? Have you been given a difficult feedback that was poorly delivered? Share with us. Leave a comment.

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