As a manager or team leader, you've got to give your people the feedback they need. But sometimes, it's not the feedback they want to hear. So, how do you deliver your message in a way the person interprets as helpful, and not harmful?

To effectively deliver feedback, you've got to get to know your people: their strengths and weaknesses, their motivations and drivers, their communication style. Realizing that what works for one person won't work for all, emotional intelligence helps you to adapt your approach to the individual.

I spoke about this recently with Kate Alloy, a management expert and the current director of employee relations for EF Education First (EF), an international education management company based in Switzerland. Alloy stresses that managers who take a one-size-fits-all approach to feedback deprive staff of critical support, trust, and professional development, putting them at greater risk of leaving. 

In contrast, approaching each employee with their own skill set in mind will help your people recognize their own value-add and be more receptive to future feedback.

What does this look like in real life? Here's what a manager might consider when dealing with employees in four very different situations.

The Superstar

These are your top performers, the ones who carry the team. Under different circumstances, you'd love to reward them with a promotion or pay raise, but the pandemic, budget, or org chart is leaving you short-handed.

So, how do you keep them from leaving?

First things first, make sure they know how much you appreciate them. Alloy recommends an emotionally intelligent approach: commendation that's sincere and specific. "Be transparent and emphasize their value using specific examples of how they've helped you, the team, and your company," says Alloy.

Also, just because the budget is tight doesn't mean you can't get creative. Ask yourself, How does this person like to be recognized or rewarded?

"If you can't offer money or travel," asks Alloy, "how else can you show your investment in their development or work-life balance? How about trainings? Virtual conferences? Networking, a mentor, or time off?"

She continues, "You can still help them make progress against their career goals even if it isn't via money or title."

The Steady Decliner 

These employees seem to be heading in the wrong direction. They have potential. But how can you reverse the trend? 

It starts with an honest conversation.

"Start by acknowledging that something's changed and there's a disconnect," says Alloy. "Ask them what's happening. Then, listen. You don't have to solve every problem yourself, but you do have to hear it and help them find a solution."

Of course, these types of solutions take time--and several discussions. Empathy goes a long way: If you can get them to open up, find a way to relate to their feelings and share a time when you felt similar. 

By making yourself vulnerable, you'll have a good chance of convincing them that you're on their side: someone trying to help and not harm. Do that, and you just may inspire them to begin turning things around.

The Flatliner 

In this scenario, the employee isn't declining or moving forward; they've simply plateaued. So, where do you go from here?

Alloy advises that you consider whether this person fulfills a critical role on the team. Is it OK to stagnate in this role? Is it time to turn it over? 

"You can open by offering to talk about the future and what it means for this person," says Alloy. "Try to determine if they're frustrated with their progress, and listen for clues as to where they may want to grow."

She adds, "It's also important to reflect on the positives. They may not see their own progress and therefore aren't inspired to take on more."

The Expert 

This employee knows their stuff; in fact, they've been around longer than you've been a manager--sometimes longer than you've been with the company. You may have even passed them up to take on your current position.

This situation can be awkward, especially if the team member is resistant to your guidance and easily becomes defensive. But you can actually use this situation to your advantage.

"Position yourself as a learner and leverage their tenure in your strategy for taking on the role," says Alloy. "Listen to their experience and follow up with small suggestions to get them on the same page; when they see support from the beginning, they'll be more trusting and less defensive."

Remember, these are sample approaches, designed to get managers thinking. Your people are individuals, with unique talents, experiences, interests, perspectives, motivations. With that comes different needs and expectations. 

So observe, listen, think deeply, and be flexible. In doing so, you'll allow emotional intelligence to drive your feedback approach--and you'll help your people become the best version of themselves.