Great leaders focus feedback on facts and impact; feedback models can help

Two men sitting across from each other at a tableLeadership is hard. Great leadership is infinitely harder.

Great leaders use their experience to develop a set of rock-solid qualities and skills that set them apart: integrity, critical thinking, decisiveness and motivation, among others. They also tend to be excellent communicators, which helps them excel in one the most challenging aspects of leadership: having difficult conversations with their employees.

After all, it’s certainly not pleasant to tell your employees they aren’t meeting their goals or performance expectations. It’s even harder when the discussions involve behavior, such as not working well with fellow employees, failing to take ownership for their actions or resisting change.

Bo Storozuk

Bo Storozuk

But Bo Storozuk (MBA 2012) says there are good models for having difficult discussions that can help all leaders—including new ones—deliver hard news in a constructive, non-threatening way. Storozuk works with the Daniels College of Business Executive Education Accelerated Leadership Experience program for high-potential employees. He also is a strategic learning and talent management consultant at Jacobs in Denver, where he specializes in comprehensive learning solutions, with a focus on organizational development, learning culture, leadership development and facilitation.

When it comes to performance discussions, Storozuk advocates an approach defined by consistency, compassion and objective clarity.

“Performance conversations should be happening regularly to celebrate what is working well, consider what can be improved and to collaborate where necessary,” Storozuk said. “This allows you to reinforce the positives and provide more timely constructive feedback so there are no big surprises for your employees.

“It’s also critically important to go into these and any other types of feedback conversations assuming positive intent and empathy,” Storozuk continued. “That has to be the foundation for starting difficult conversations—resisting the natural tendency to go in with premature assumptions, judgements or conclusions.”

There are several models to help leaders have difficult discussions, but Storozuk prefers one called Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI), which was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, a global, non-profit provider of leadership development concepts and programs.

SBI has three simple steps, all based in facts:

  • Describing the situation with specific detail on when and where it occurred
  • Describing the observable behavior, avoiding assumptions about what the person was thinking
  • Describing the specific results of the behavior and the impact that it had

“What I love about the SBI model is that it brings objectivity to feedback discussions,” Storozuk said. “It removes opinion and bias, which is where we often get into trouble. It keeps things objective by establishing a set of facts that serve as the basis for a candid discussion about the person’s intent without getting into potentially ugly assumptions or judgements.

“And approaching the discussion with good intent and empathy places the leader in the position of truly understanding the employee’s logic and emotions, as well as any underlying factors that can be at play,” Storozuk continued. “It’s about objectively identifying and understanding the bigger picture around why a certain behavior may be present, before jumping to conclusions and determining corrective actions.”

Storozuk cautioned against using the “I” word, as in “I know how you feel” or “I feel your pain,” which can swing the focus away from the employee, who may be expressing deeply felt concerns. He suggested use of the word “what”—rather than “why”—to reframe questions that can expose a broader picture.

“‘Why’ questions—such as ‘Why did you say that?’—tend to trigger defensive responses, especially if someone is already in a heightened emotional state,” Storozuk said. “‘What’ questions—such as ‘What made you think that?’—are typically more effective in getting to the intellectual or emotional factors that drove a certain behavior.”

While having these types of conversations is never easy, approaching your employees with consistency, compassion and objective clarity allows you to build strong relationships based on trust and alignment.