Last week, I was flipping through the radio stations as I drove to work.  I landed on a talk radio station, the Cosmo channel, and the guest was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.  Apparently, the editor is also the person who gives workplace advice.  I say apparently because I am not a regular reader or listener.  The conversation caught my attention because the topic was how to give feedback at work.

The example they used was  how to tell a co-worker they are bothering you when they stop to gossip or chat about things at your cube each day. Sometimes, several times a day.  I think we all work with people like this.  You know the ones, the colleagues who always have time to chit-chat when you’re swamped.  What surprised me was that the tactics and advice the editor and the show hosts were giving were all about being indirect.  They were saying you should ask the person to meet you after work to talk, make up false deadlines to get them away from your desk, tell the person you really want to talk to her but that your boss is complaining, etc.  While I understand they were telling us to use indirect feedback and made up stories to save the person’s feelings, I know there are better ways that work and that will not hurt the person any more than the indirect approach.  In fact, the danger of the indirect approaches is that the recipient may never understand there is a problem and the behavior will continue.

So, what can you do?

Be Direct

This is always my preferred approach.  Being direct does not mean intentionally trying to hurt the recipient’s feelings or to be cruel.  Being direct does mean telling the person the truth in such a way that they understand that the behavior they are exhibiting is unacceptable.  In our example above, being direct would your feedback may sound like this:  “Hi Jane.  Listen, I know you enjoy talking about ______(insert whatever topic here).  I do too.  However, when you come by my cube daily and do this, my supervisor notices us talking about it and it gives him the impression I am not working or that I don’t have enough work to do.  I want to maintain a good reputation at work Jane.  So, I will not be able to continue these daily discussions during the work day.  Thank you for understanding.”

Don’t Bring Other People Into It

I hear people use the tactic of bringing other people into giving feedback quite often.  If you are trying to deliver the message above to Jane, for example, it would not be advised to say, “Jane, other people in the office have noticed you chat too much at the cubicles.”  Why not?  Well, even though it sounds like direct feedback on the surface, it is not.  This will immediately send Jane’s mind racing to who the “other people in the office” are.  Now she’s not focused on the feedback you’re about to deliver.  She’s worried about who is talking about her behind her back.  This is the kind of information that causes mistrust in the work group.  If you must bring other people into the discussion, be ready to say who they are.

Use Your Voice/ Don’t Hide Behind E-Mail

If this is the first time the person is going to hear this feedback from you, make sure it is verbal feedback.  In the case of Jane, if you were to just send her an e-mail, it will not have the same impact.  Jane will be surprised and may not interpret the tone of the e-mail in the way you intend.  Jane will also have questions that will certainly lead to follow up e-mails.  By not being direct, either in person or over the phone, you are now setting yourself up for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

The bottom line is that sometimes, giving direct feedback on a behavior is uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable for you and for the person receiving it.  However, if you beat around the bush, try to avoid the person and just hope the behavior stops, e-mail the person only part of the story, or use other indirect tactics, you are doing yourself and them a disservice.  The best way is to be mature, professional, and compassionate.

What do you think?  How would you give feedback in this situation?  What other tactics work for you?  Share them in the comments.