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Offering Feedback While Working Remotely

By Jeanne Blake

Constructive feedback is vital to employees’ development and sense of engagement. Leaders say these conversations, often challenging in the best of times, are particularly tough as we work remotely. “On the phone or via zoom, body language is either absent or more difficult to read,” one leader said. “My employees sometimes think I’m being far more critical than I am.” Whether positive or corrective, how feedback lands depends on a variety of factors. Here is guidance for providing feedback virtually.

Employ empathy  First, distinguish empathy from sympathy. Dr. Paula Rauch, a psychiatrist at Mass General Hospital, defines these terms: “Sympathy is when you imagine what someone else is feeling,” she says. “Empathy is truly understanding how another person feels – so you can respond from his or her perspective.”

Put yourself in their shoes  This is key to understanding another’s point of view. “When you don’t understand where others are coming from, you create frustration,” says Dr. Joe Stoklosa, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. “When you do understand, you create an attunement – a shared understanding. Then you can move forward with them. This is a powerful way to motivate.”

Listen, listen, listen  Key to “getting” another person is to ask open-ended questions and then to listen. As the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Know your audience  Take into account distinct personalities and attitudes. One person may want direct feedback, while another is offended by it. Some want a rigorous back-and-forth to understand every nuance, while others prefer to step back to process feedback. Tailor your feedback to individual needs to foster a healthy culture.

Be positive  A leader I work with said, “I don’t want to be told something I did was stupid or wrong. Rather, tell me how I can improve and hear me out, so it’s a two-way dialogue. Feedback shouldn’t be about you as a person, but how you can do something better.”

Be aware of your nonverbal cues  When working remotely, and using video technology, your expressions may be misread by others. So let your employee know that your comments are offered in a positive spirit. Whether communicating by phone or video, Dr. Milissa Kaufman, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, asks for confirmation that feedback was received as intended. You can say, “I want to make sure we understood each other. Please tell me how you interpret what I just said.”

Call out improvement  When you observe an employee acting on feedback, offer genuine praise. One leader was encouraged to work on her presentation skills. After an important meeting where she nailed her presentation, she received a congratulatory email from her CEO. He detailed what she’d done well and closed with, “I could see how hard you worked at it. Well organized and delivered!”

Jeanne Blake is president of Blake Works, a leadership communications consulting firm.

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