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August 18, 2015

HBR: How to give feedback if you hate conflict

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on July 19, 2018.

Not everyone is comfortable with conflict in the workplace, but it's a necessary component of effective management.

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Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Amy Jen Su, co-founder of an executive training firm, offers tips on how to deliver difficult feedback while maintaining workplace harmony.

1. Don't hesitate to bring up concerns. Jen Su suggests holding a discussion as soon as possible to resolve whatever issue is bothering you with a certain individual or group.

Delaying confrontation likely will only exacerbate the issue, and could have negative results for the organization and for interpersonal relationships, Jen Su says. If you are hesitant, she recommends thinking about what additional information you need to make a decision about when to deliver feedback, and to consider that—by avoiding a discussion—you may be negatively affecting the team's morale in an effort to avoid hurting an individual's feelings.

2. Be clear and concrete with your intentions. In addition, Jen Su says, it's necessary to be clear and open with the individual and share the business context for why the feedback is necessary. Reassure the person that his or her intentions were likely good, but that you have concerns about the effect of their actions. Then, Jen Su suggests stating what should be done to remedy the situation, including concrete examples of changes the person should make.

After giving the employee time to digest the information, see how he or she is feeling and ask for any thoughts on the issue.

3. Play out potential scenarios. In order to become more comfortable with potential outcomes of a difficult conversation, you need to prepare yourself adequately, Jen Su says. If a conversation does become emotional or defensive, acknowledge the situation and offer to take a break—but don't backtrack on your message, Jen Su stresses. But if the person offers new information during the process, Jen Su says it may be best to reassess the situation, including potentially rescheduling the discussion for another time.

4. Follow up. Ensuring that the employee knows you are available to discuss an issue further is crucial for maintaining a positive relationship and preserving the original message, Jen Su says.

"Being an effective leader requires some level of stepping out of your comfort zone and a commitment to continually improving your communication skills," writes Jen Su. And even if you are conflict-adverse, "you may be surprised to find that on a high-functioning team where feedback is shared honestly, conflict is minimal," she concludes (Jen Su, Harvard Business Review, 8/13).

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