Let’s get personal: how to give negative feedback to a work friend

Dec 14, 2020

5 mins

Let’s get personal: how to give negative feedback to a work friend
Rose Costello


Handing out praise is the easy part of management. You are the bearer of good news and that warm, fuzzy feeling spreads around the team. But what if one member is not performing to the expected standard? And what if that person is a good pal? How do you give negative feedback to a colleague who is also a friend?

After 10 years serving with the Derbyshire Constabulary in the East Midlands, Kul Mahay was excited about being promoted to sergeant. His enthusiasm was tinged with apprehension, however, when he learned that he was being transferred back to the police station where he had started his career as a police cadet. During his time there, he had built up friendships with officers who had never left. “This station was more secluded than most geographically, so those who served there tended to stay there,” he said. “In fact some served their entire 30 years at this one police station.”

To some, he was just a young whippersnapper, to others a friend. Now, he would have to be their manager too. Being a police officer at any level is not easy. The Derbyshire Constabulary warns potential recruits that it is “mentally, physically and emotionally” challenging. It is a huge testing environment that requires a strong personality.

At the station where he was to be sergeant, an authoritative form of leadership was the norm, but Mahay knew that would not suit him. “I realized from the onset that my style would have to be different. Mine would have to be more inspiring to reflect my personality,” he said. He would have to gain their trust as a manager. To do that, he decided to be open with his colleagues. “I told them this is hard for me and it’s probably really hard for you as well . . . but we are in this together,” he said.

Having friends on your team is a good thing

Managing police officers is no easy task. Working in the police force is an especially stressful career due to the personal risk involved, exposure to traumatic incidents, high levels of responsibility, and long, antisocial hours. Mahay, 54, says that far from being a hindrance, working with friends can help you to have rapport and build trust. “It’s not what you do with people, it’s how you make them feel that is important,” he said. “I want to know what their frustrations are, who they are as people, as human beings. . . to connect with people at that level.” This is all easier when there is a degree of closeness.

This helps when it comes to giving negative feedback too. With friends, you are more likely to know what is causing any performance issues—and there is always a cause, according to Mahay. “There may be underlying personal issues that are not obvious from the outset,” he said. “Perhaps they are having financial problems or there has been a death in the family.”

… but how do you tell a friend they need to raise their game?

This empathetic approach has helped him when delivering negative feedback to close colleagues over the years. With each promotion came new challenges. “On many occasions, I was sent back to a department where I had close friends with whom I needed to forge a different professional relationship without losing the human element of friendship,” he said.

By the time he retired in 2015, Mahay had spent almost two-thirds of his career in leadership roles, culminating with the temporary chief superintendent. Given his experience, we asked Mahay, who now runs a coaching business, The Immersion Coach, for advice.

Here are his top tips for giving negative feedback:

  1. Stick to the facts. It’s important to be scrupulously fair in these situations no matter how close you are to your colleague. Make sure you have evidence of the issue in question,” said Mahay, adding that this will help them to see that any criticism is not personal.

  2. Keep a cool head. Plan what you will say in advance and then make sure that your language is conversational, rather than confrontational. “Don’t approach the meeting as if it was a competition or confrontation,” he said. Manage your emotions. Don’t allow your own feelings to override your thought process.”

  3. Address the issue. It’s important to be open to discussing the problem, but don’t get sidetracked or try to force the issue. “Don’t become overly authoritative—most conversations don’t need this to move forward and can very often become an obstruction,” he said, adding that there are two sides to every story.

  4. Use coaching language. Make sure the feedback is balanced by highlighting their strong points too. Give some honest appreciation. Then ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Asking the right questions will help to involve the person in finding the solution. “You’re actually guiding them to go deeper and deeper, and eventually, if you ask the right questions in the right way, you’ll get down to something nearing the root cause of why they are feeling the way they are feeling, and why they are underperforming,” he said. “Most people want to do a good job. They want to feel good at work. Nobody comes to work wanting to be lazy.”

  5. Create a plan. Your goal is to have an agreed plan of action that has been drawn up with your friend’s input. It should have clear steps to be taken. “Ensure that there are some agreed actions at the end of every single meeting so that there can be accountability moving forward.”

When you can’t save a friendship

This method has worked well for Mahay over the years, though the friendship has not always survived. One of the most testing instances came towards the end of his 32-year career in the police force. One of his close friends was doing a great job, as he had been for many years, but he was not meeting targets. Mahay’s superiors tasked him to pull his friend up on his behavior. His friend was a strong character who was not willing to take instruction from someone who had been at the same rank.

“This person couldn’t see beyond this and become very defensive and angry, said Mahay. “I prepared for each meeting so that I could ensure I stayed on track, particularly when his emotions threatened to take the meeting down a different path. I think he might have been upset that I chose to challenge his professional behavior.”

They agreed on a six-month action plan, with regular review meetings. Slowly, his friend changed his behavior and started to meet his targets. The relationship never recovered, however. “Often leadership can be very lonely and you cannot please all the people all the time but [you should] stick to your core values and stay true to who you are and what you believe. Be fair in the process and involve the person in the solution process where possible,” said Mahay.

It’s tough at the top

It’s important to use your emotional intelligence, but not to expect it to achieve everything, he says. “No matter how highly emotionally intelligent you are, you are never going to be everything to everyone,” he said. “You cannot count on other people’s emotions, you can only count your own. That was a tough lesson for me. It was a stark reminder that I was never going to be the finished article, and none of us ever will be.”

The important thing for any manager is to keep growing and developing, according to Mahay. “We need to keep learning and improving.”

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