One of the most precarious situations you can get in as a manager is when someone comes to you with feedback about one of your team members and asks you to pass the bad news along. If you make the wrong move here, you condone passive-aggressiveness, exacerbate conflict avoidance, and become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.

What do I mean by “the wrong move?” It’s the approach I see so many managers take. They listen to the feedback and then pass it on to their team member. It’s the wrong move for many reasons. First, it’s wrong for the person sharing the feedback because you’ve eliminated the opportunity for them to practice delivering difficult messages and, just as importantly, the opportunity for them to hear the other side of the story.

Second, for the person receiving the feedback, you’re passing on feedback about behavior you didn’t observe, which could feel very subjective and judgmental. You’ve also denied the person receiving the feedback the opportunity to ask questions, seek clarification, and share how they perceived the same situation.

Finally, passing on someone else’s feedback is the wrong move for you as a manager. You become a broker in conversations that you don’t need to be involved in. Once you do that a couple of times, your team will learn that you’re willing to do their dirty work. So much for personal accountability.

Stop Passing On Feedback

Rather than becoming the go-between for constructive feedback, try this approach:

  1. Let’s call our indirect feedbacker Chad. Stop Chad before he even shares the feedback and ask if he has already spoken with the person in question, let’s call her Sally. Even if you say nothing more than that, it will signal that speaking directly to Sally was an option.
  2. Listen to the feedback as impartially as possible. Filter out the facts that describe Sally’s behavior from the judgment, hyperbole, and drama Chad is layering on. Where there is little objective fact to work with, ask for clarification by saying something like, “Ok, so you’re talking about the meeting this morning and you feel as if Sally was rude. What did she actually do or say that made you feel that way?”
  3. Ask questions to help Chad reflect on the situation and to process his emotions. Of course, these questions will depend on the person and the specific issue, but here’s the gist. “What do you think Sally intended when she said that?” “What led up to that moment?” “How would you have perceived the same comment coming from someone else?” By helping the person work through these questions, you encourage them to take a more rational view of the situation and to own their half.
  4. Once you’ve helped the person get to the core of the issue, pivot to the next steps.
  5. If Chad is still feeling that Sally’s behavior was out of line, encourage him to give her the feedback directly. Ask, “How could you share this with Sally?” Coach, “I’d encourage you to focus on what she actually said, then you can tell her how you interpreted it.” Support, “I think it’s great that you are going to share this feedback.” Lay it on fairly thick. Make it clear that the right thing to do in this case is for Chad to talk directly to Sally.
  6. If the person is unwilling to share the feedback directly, tell them that you’re going to let Sally know that he has concerns. This is important because you want to establish a precedent that feedback must get back to the person and that you won’t allow people to complain to you without doing something about it. The only exception to passing on the feedback is if you think there was no merit to it…but even then, it’s probably worth giving Sally a heads up that Chad is harboring bad feelings.
  7. When you talk with Sally, remember that the only thing you can share with her is what you know first-hand to be true. In that sense, what you’re doing isn’t really feedback at all. You can say, “Chad came to speak with me after your meeting. He said that he felt you were rude with him. He was particularly concerned with his perception that you took questions from five people while ignoring him.” That’s very different from saying, “You were rude.” You’ll engender trust by not immediately assuming that Chad’s perception was the truth.
  8. Ask Sally to share her experience of the event and see what you can learn. Look for how each person’s intent fell short of their impact. If Sally’s response is defensive or emotional, offer her the same assistance you gave Chad in trying to process the experience and to gain perspective on how things went awry. “What did you say?” What did you intend when you said that?” “What led up to that moment?” “How do you think that would have felt for Chad?”
  9. The next step is to encourage Sally to speak with Chad. Ideally, they would speak privately with each other, but as you build up these muscles, you might offer to be present to make the conversation feel a little safer. You need to make sure the loop gets closed.
  10. When you are through the process, take a moment to let your team know that the goal is to be able to give each other feedback directly. Encourage them to come to you if they need help to process their thoughts or to get coaching on how best to deliver the message, but make sure you play a smaller and smaller role each time.

Delivering feedback is uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, and hard to do well if you don’t have the skills. It’s no wonder people come to you hoping you’ll deliver feedback for them. Don’t let them off that easy. Passing on indirect feedback is bad practice and only makes everyone’s life hard in the long run.

Further Reading

When Feedback Triggers Backlash

Maybe You Shouldn’t Give Feedback

How to Give Feedback to Someone Who Doesn’t Report to You