And now for some of the most challenging parts of coaching a colleague: the tough feedback conversation. Let’s face it, this is why so many of us don’t like to coach. It’s bad enough that you’re investing in someone who may or may not make dramatic progress. It doesn’t help that most of the time you get little praise or tangible reward for your efforts and that the colleague makes progress in fits and starts (hey, they’re human too!). To top it all off, you have to shoot straight with your colleague when he’s just not making the grade.

It all sounds too much like being a parent! Hard work, tough words, uncertain rewards.

But deep down, most of us know that there will be times when we simply have to deliver “constructive” feedback to the people we coach. Sure, we’d like to avoid it and our rationalizers work overtime to work around it, but it’s dangling there right in front of us. We know that he’ll suffer and ultimately we’ll suffer if we don’t buck up and have some courage.

Knowing you have to do it is the easy part – it’s the doing bit that’s tricky.

Let’s start with how not to do it. I’ve helped quite a few people interpret feedback reports from 360 degree feedback over the past 10 years. On one eventful day, I had two clients who reported to the same senior executive process their reports with me in successive one-on-one sessions. I was glad there was a large box of Kleenex in the room. Don’t get me wrong, both of these women are very strong, accomplished professionals. And on the whole, their feedback was pretty positive. But the Big Boss had used a singularly unhelpful feedback approach. In almost every category, she had said that the performance standard she held up was a very high proficiency (5 out of 5 on the scale). And similarly, in nearly every category, she rated these two leaders as mediocre performers (2 or maybe 3 out of 5).

I don’t doubt that this senior leader believed the ratings she gave. I’m just saying they were nearly useless. Both of my clients knew they had development needs. But if everything is a priority and nothing is a strength, it leaves a person – well, in a bit of a pile. And without much direction. And angry. Other than that, it’s a great strategy.

Happily, there are better ways than either avoidance or nuking them until they glow. Here are a few ideas:

– Start by asking yourself, “Have I earned the right with this person to deliver this sort of feedback yet? How much credibility do I have with him? How much does he believe that I want him to succeed?” If you’re concerned about this, start by brainstorming at least three things you can do to build that relational bank account. And get doing it now!
– Assuming you have some money in the bank, choose the most important issues that need to be addressed commensurate with your level of credibility. If you think he can hear you out about how he’s rubbing key client staff wrong, that’s probably more important than the fact that he could use a new tie. Select the issue(s) carefully and strategically.
– At your next coaching meeting (or before if the issue is urgent), be sure to have enough time to deal with this issue. If possible, meet face to face and on “neutral turf”. Tell him that you have an issue you’d like to discuss and you want to be sure you have time to really handle it properly.
– Start by explicitly stating your intent in this conversation. “Jim, I enjoy working with you and believe in your future in the firm. I think you know by now that my primary reason to coach and mentor you is that I want you succeed. I’ve seen something recently that I’d like to discuss with you to help you toward that goal.” Your goal here is to remind Jim that you’re on his team.
– Now just state what you see. Keep it as factual and behavioral as possible. “I notice when we’re on the client site that some of our project team members seem hesitant to talk to you. They come to me instead. When I ask them why they don’t just approach you, they say that they’ve tried and are frustrated because you seem too busy for them or seem irritated by their questions.”
– Take a breath. This is a good time to ask Jim for his point of view on the situation. “What do you see?” is sometimes a good question to ask.
– Help Jim see the impact of his behavior. “Jim, I know how much pressure has been on you with this project, and I also know your aspirations in the firm. Being able to support project teams, especially when they’re under pressure, is a key sign of readiness to step up to bigger responsibilities around here. Can I help you think this through so that you might try a different approach?”
– This is a key moment in the conversation. Jim may be defensive. He may back-pedal or clam up. If that happens, your job is to notice what’s happening in him and simply point it out. “It looks to me like you’re getting a little ticked off about this.” Eventually, our goal is to get Jim to the place where he wants to change because he sees that change will get him what he wants. At that point, we can begin to brainstorm new ways of approaching the same situations – or even better, avoiding them altogether.

When you’ve gotten through this process, you can feel very gratified. You have helped change the momentum of your colleague’s career. You have helped reinforce core values of the firm. You have probably made present and future clients more satisfied. It’s all indirect and may never get noticed.

Except by Jim – and by you.