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You Stink, Aka Advanced Feedback For Connoisseurs

January 18, 2021, 4-min. read
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Let's face it; we've all been in conditions when we've performed (smelled) a little less than our ideal selves. Unfortunately, for some, this appears to be (hopefully just) a semi-permanent condition. So how do you break the news to someone without breaking them?

Telling anyone that their 'body odor is uncomfortable' - or even that 'whatever is peaking from their cleavage' might be distracting other colleagues in the office - is not necessarily what any of us would enjoy doing. Even skilled professionals have quite polarizing opinions on how to handle these conversations, often hiding behind 'it depends on circumstances' reasoning. 

Fortunately, apart from obvious advice - like creating a safe environment (think finding the right time and private space to do so) - there are some best practices and proven expert advice to make this conversation a little less dreadful. 

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Despite the opposing views on many aspects of what one would call 'advanced feedback,' many success stories have a couple of dos and don'ts in common:

Don't be the messenger. 

In Ancient Persia, a messenger was used to report whether the army had been victorious in a battle. Either he'd be celebrated as a hero, or he could expect to be executed, even though he had nothing to do with the battle nor its outcome. In fact, behavioral science research suggests that humans are programmed to dislike the person who breaks them some bad news. 

So it seems natural that with such a sensitive topic, many try to shift the responsibility onto someone else or at least sneak in some phrases like 'others think...' or 'some people have noticed'... Just to distance themselves from the situation. However, this approach often backfires as it raises even more questions. 'Who said it? Oh, I'm sure it was her!' 

So whether you pulled the shortest straw, or you have to handle this awkward conversation as a manager, always speak for yourself. 

Reserve judgment & assumptions. 

'I don't know if this is a hygiene thing or your clothes...' You can probably see where we're headed with this one. 

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If you don't say anything, nothing is likely to change. 

Be direct - yet tactful. It may seem daunting, but the problem needs to be tackled head-on. As your colleague is most likely unaware of the situation, explain, why you're breaking the news focusing on its impacts & implications. 

Dropping hints (imaginary or physical - like deodorant in this instance) will only create confusion and probably make the situation even more awkward. Overall, softening the blow can make it seem like a much bigger deal than it is. 

Convey good intent & empathy. 

Show that you care, expressing empathy and tact. The recipient should perceive you're trying to help them. If they're emotional, appeal to their emotions, be logical when they're relying on reasoning. Relate the news back to their aspirations, focus on the path forward. 

Straightforward. Honest. Kindly. 

This subject is always a challenging one to bring up, and it is crucial to consider who you're breaking the news to. But as they say - people connect through their deepest insecurities or things they have in common. In this instance, there's for sure at least one thing you and the receiver have in common - you will most probably feel a bit awkward. There! You have something in common. So let's connect and get this over with. You can do this! 

...there's for sure at least one thing you and the receiver have in common...

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