Giving feedback is an act of grace; the discomfort will fade and the benefit will live on.

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Q: I have a team member who is smart, caring and a good leader. He brings a lot of benefit to the team and would be an excellent candidate for higher leadership levels. His problem? Awful table manners — to the point where it can be hard to eat with him. What should I do?

A: As the boss, it’s your responsibility to provide feedback to team members, especially for career-limiting behaviors. It’s not necessarily an easy part of the job, though, especially when it involves discussing a personal characteristic like manners or hygiene.

First, make up your mind to address this topic with him. Then you’re no longer debating whether you should intervene and can focus on the best approach.

Imagine if the roles were reversed and you were the one talking with your mouth full and splaying your elbows all over the table. You’d want someone to give you some guidance, right? Especially if you’re unaware of your behavior and its importance. You’d also probably want the feedback to be delivered privately and gently.

Consider feelings you have that may be holding you back from talking with him. Are you worried he’ll become angry, upset or embarrassed? If you’re anxious about it, think through the worst thing that could happen, and then consider how likely it’d be. Realistically, you’ll probably be able to remove any barriers you’re putting in your own way.

When it’s time to talk to him, don’t improvise. Take time to think about what you want to say and practice it. You don’t want to be too rehearsed, but you also want to be clear and have the right tone. This is a good situation for a “compliment-critique-compliment” sandwich. For example, you might say something like, “You bring so many great skills to your work, but your manners are getting in your way. Fixing this may be one of the keys to new opportunities.”

Then offer to help and enlist his engagement: “I’d like to help you improve; do you have any ideas on how to proceed?” If he doesn’t, you could provide specific examples of behavior to address, teach the expected behavior, or even find an etiquette coach. Together, try to have some fun with it; life’s too short to take everything too seriously. Anyway, some laughs can ease embarrassment and facilitate change.

You can minimize the surprise of the conversation by asking permission to give feedback. This gives him a heads-up that something somewhat challenging may be coming so he doesn’t feel blindsided.

If he declines feedback, persist, making it clear that the feedback is needed but that he has some control over the time and place. This is a great way to open a challenging topic if you want to give feedback to a colleague or friend, and you don’t have the “boss” liberty to do so. And yes, it’ll be awkward, but so what? How will you feel if you don’t have the conversation and this holds him back?

Giving feedback is an act of grace; the discomfort will fade and the benefit will live on.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at