Give Feedback Directly


In my project management class a few weeks ago, I did an activity on feedback. In my experience, many project managers are also functional managers, so they need to give feedback. And, in highly collaborative teams, the person called “manager” isn't the only one to give and receive feedback.

One team got stuck. One team-member worked with someone with bad breath. As he explained it, “You could tell 10 minutes after this guy was in the room that he'd been there.” This one person's bad breath was preventing the whole team from working together. In fact, some people asked to be moved off the project. This is a serious problem.

They'd thought of these techniques:

  • Send him an anonymous email to some site that deals with bad breath.
  • Leave Listerine on his desk.

I asked if they couldn't think of some direct approach to feedback. “Oh, no, I couldn't do that; it would hurt his feelings,” was the answer. I don't buy it, and explained my reaction. If someone left me an anonymous email or a mouthwash, I would either assume it wasn't for me, or that it was a joke. I'm dense enough that I would not link it to my breath. And even if I did assume it was for me, I would be hurt that no one felt that I was a reasonable enough person to have a conversation about it.

Anonymous feedback techniques are not specific. Does the person have bad breath all the time or only after eating a lunch with lots of garlic? The person needs to know.

Here's the suggestion I made to my student. Make an appointment for a private conversation. Explain that you (the person in my class) has noticed the other person's bad breath on several (and name them) occasions. And, other people notice the odor enough so that they have asked to not work on the same project with this person. Once the two people agreed on the data, they could move into problem-solving mode. (“Would you like help solving this problem?”)

Note that this follows Esther's four steps listed in Feedback Traps:

  • Start by creating an opening.
  • Describe the behavior or result without using labels, or evaluations.
  • State the impact using language. No one can argue you out of what you feel.
  • Make a request.

I don't know the state of this feedback, but it's clear to me that indirect feedback doesn't work. Clear and direct feedback does work.

4 thoughts on “Give Feedback Directly”

  1. I saw your blog and I thought that perhaps you could send your co-worker an anonymous e-mail to my site. The bad breath products work great and I am sure that this will solve your work place problem.

  2. Giving feedback requires confidence on the part of the giver. I was once asked by my supervisor to give him feedback on his performance. I took three days and prepared my list of positives and negatives and made sure they were intermixed and balanced. I went to the appointment we had set and gave my boss an honest evaluation. It made our relationship so much better, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It created an open line of communication between us that we pushed out to include other colleagues, but the risk that we both took was pretty large. the reward made the risk worthwhile.

  3. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a male subordinate who had body odor – mostly not bathing enough or changing underwear enough and flatulence. I spoke with the company nurse who tried to assess the problem a desk-length distance from this person, which was much different than working elbow to elbow as was the case in the working environment. She found no problem. Right. But I continued to get complaints. So one day I asked this employee to stay a few minutes late. (We worked in an open environment, so I didn’t want others to know I had spoken to him. To protect myself, I asked a male supervisor to stay late in his unit’s work area so that he could be a witness but not hear the conversation.) It was a toughy and was said with downcast eyes and embarrassment on the cheeks. My approach was: “There have been complaints about body odor. This is the industrial standard – a bath or shower everyday with a change of underwear. White clothes are worn one day before being washed, dark clothes are worn two. Watch the beans and the tuna as they cause gas. Thanks for staying late.”
    We never talked about this again until I left the company. In the meantime he had been promoted. On that last day he came to me and thanked me for giving the advice I had given even though it was a difficult subject.

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