British bosses bad at giving bad news

Are UK managers just far too awkward and polite to give negative feedback properly?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We think it’s fair to say that Britain isn’t really a nation of complainers. Many a time we put up with sub-standard service because we’re just far too embarrassed to ‘cause a scene’ about it. And it seems the same may be true in our working lives: a new report from employee research specialists Shine Feedback suggests that British managers often shy away from having difficult conversations about performance – and if they do have to take the plunge, quite often make a hash of it. Maybe we need to start being a bit more American about it...

Remarkably, a third of the 13,000 UK staff surveyed by Shine claimed that they didn’t have regular performance reviews; while across the board, managers were given low marks for the way they handled difficult conversations. You’d think that the pressure on headcounts in the recession would make managers even keener to pick up on poor performance – but in fact, Shine reckons that it’s made them worse, because they’re reluctant to put someone out of a job when they might have a hard time getting another one.

Shine boss Andy Clare reckons it’s a bit like the legendary British reluctance to complain in restaurants: ‘We can grumble to our companions, but we couldn’t possibly tell the waiter’. But the good news is that the problem isn’t an intractable one; bosses, he says, just need more training in ‘how to express dissatisfaction effectively’. In practice, this means sticking to the facts and offering constructive advice that people can learn from, rather than dragging them into a room and bawling them out for half an hour. The big mistake we tend to make, he says, is to confuse complaining with expressing dissatisfaction, when in fact the two are very different.

We can’t help feeling that most employees are never going to speak in glowing terms about their manager’s negative feedback skills. However constructively it may be phrased, some people are always going to take personally any implication that they haven’t been doing their job properly (and it will certainly be hard for them to judge the delivery of the feedback objectively). On the other hand, we can equally well believe that managers hate having this kind of conversation; in which case, it’s no surprise if they try to avoid it wherever possible, and aren’t very good at it when they are forced to do it. More training might help, but it’s never going to be much fun.


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