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How To Provide Subjective Feedback That Motivates Long Term Change

February 27, 20245 min read

What do you do with an employee who is getting great results, but you know they are not the cause of those results or perhaps they are getting those results the wrong way?

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Some years ago an executive coaching client ‘George’ (not his real name) related to me a particularly difficult challenge he was facing. George was struggling because Sam (also not his real name – but you knew that didn’t you?) was failing in his role as a senior leader. When I asked George what the results were like in Sam’s group, he replied that they were exceeding plan. When I asked how that was possible, he replied that the role was so critical that he had been doing Sam’s job for him for some time.

George was faced with a problem: How do you deal with an underperforming leader when their objective results are strong – even if you know that they are not the reason those results are strong. In other words, your feedback is Subjective rather than Objective, and could be viewed as your opinion.

Even Objective Feedback has a Subjective Component

Even Objective Feedback has a Subjective Component

In some cases, you can show an employee that objective performance metrics are not where they need to be. That is not to say that they will always agree on their performance being the cause of the metric being less than desirable – but at least you have a solid starting point for the conversation.


Even in the case of incontrovertible objective evidence, leaders are sometimes unable, or unwilling, to see the connection between their operational results and their own leadership skills and/or behavior.

However, it is a much more difficult situation when the results are actually positive, but in your opinion they are either not getting those results the correct way, or perhaps you feel they are not contributing to those results at all. In both of these cases, the feedback you need to give is ‘subjective’ not ‘objective’. This can be the hardest type of feedback to give without creating a defensive reaction from your employee.

What you need is a skill to help you do this that will help focus the employee on what they need to learn and minimize any tendency to be defensive.

The Solution: You Have to Make Your Subjective Feedback Objective

The Solution: You Have to Make Your Subjective Feedback Objective

Since so many of our coaching conversations revolve around subjective feedback, we created a process called Making the Subjective Objective™.

Let’s use an example to show how it works:

One of your supervisors is having difficulty driving operational results. You can see that he is not engaging in effective coaching behaviors. Instead, he seems to take great pride in solving operational issues himself. This is lowering overall morale and engagement level in the team. Since he can only be in one place at a time, response times have extended, and problems seem to pile up. This has caused him to complain about not being able to find skilled and hard working employees. You have tried to broach the subject of improving his coaching skills but he feels that he is already a pretty good coach.

Sounds familiar?

In this case there is a mismatch between his perception of his skill level and what you believe his skill level to be. In other words – your feedback is subjective in nature.

Try Making the Subjective Objective™

Ask the supervisor to rate their coaching skill from zero to ten. Note: We use zero because no one can confuse that with a good score.

If the supervisor gives himself a rating anywhere from zero to eight, they are indicating that there is a possibility that they could improve. The challenge we fall into here is that we get hung up on the rating being correct – at least in our opinion. This desire for a correct score misses the point.

What we want is for them to acknowledge there is a GAP between where they are and where they could be. So if they think they are a 7, and you think they are a 2; who cares? They have admitted that there is an opportunity for growth. So don’t get hung up on the actual score.

Once they have admitted there is a GAP and therefore there is an opportunity for growth – ask “What would a 10 look like?”

This question will elicit an answer from them that will tell one of two things:

1. They understand that there’s some growth possible, and they also have some ideas of what to do to improve. In this case you can have a discussion with them about how to make these changes. Or,

2. They understand that there’s some growth possible, however they do not know what they can do to improve. In this case, you can ask if they are open to some ideas from you, and then coach them on how to make those changes.

Once again, do not fall into the trap of thinking you have to agree on the actual rating, all you want is an acknowledgement of a gap between their current skill level and where they could be.

But what if they rate themselves a 9 or a 10?

This is the tougher scenario. Even a 9 is a 10 in disguise – they just did not want to seem arrogant. In this case, you have to have a candid conversation with them that you do not believe that their evaluation is correct.

This is usually due to either a lack of awareness or a lack of humility.

It is possible the supervisor has never have worked for someone that has been willing to give them candid feedback and they lack the awareness that growth is possible and necessary. While painful, your feedback could be a critical step in their career development.

In other cases it may be case of a lack of humility. And humility is one of the hardest traits to coach. (We will be addressing this challenge in a future post.)

Try Making the Subjective Objective™ today so that you can accelerate the progress of your team.

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Andrew Oxley

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