In the past two weeks, two people have thanked me for giving them unsolicited feedback.
I was struck by this because society tells us that people hate critical feedback. While that theory is mostly true, studies show that most of us want more feedback than we currently receive. Employee engagement firm Office Vibe found that 65 percent of employees want more feedback. They also found that 82 percent of employees appreciate receiving feedback, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
However, many hesitate to share critical feedback because they don’t know how to do it effectively or they’re worried about how the person on the receiving end will respond.
What Happens When Feedback Isn’t Shared?
I discovered the tough answer to this question when I was 24. As a freshly minted MBA grad, I accepted a management position leading a team of 50 people in a retail store. A couple months into that role, I had to fire one of my team leads — a person who had been with the company for five years.
The termination discussion went about as poorly as one could imagine. When I told the team member he was being fired, he cussed me out and told me I had no authority to fire him. Security guards ultimately had to escort the individual out of the building as he yelled and swore at his now-former co-workers.
Although it was extremely difficult to go through this situation as a young manager, this experience taught me two important things:
(1) Refusing to share feedback is unkind and unfair. When I joined the company, I found out that every one of this employee’s past managers had been too scared to share feedback with him. He had a long history of treating customers and team members poorly, but despite numerous complaints, no one had addressed the issue with him because they feared he would respond aggressively. No one told him there was a problem, so he kept behaving the way he always did. By the time I came along, the train was too far down the tracks; he simply wasn’t able to turn around his behavior, and he lost his job. That really sucks, and the situation probably could have been avoided if previous managers had done their jobs and shared the tough messages that needed to be shared.
(2) “Softening” tough messages doesn’t help anyone. When I first began working with this employee, I shared critical feedback cautiously and infrequently. I sandwiched feedback between compliments and failed to fully disclose the impact of his behavior upon the rest of the team. If I had done a better job of sharing direct, candid feedback, this employee would have realized the significance of the problem and perhaps would have changed his behavior. At best, he may have kept his job. At worst, he at least wouldn’t have been as surprised when the day came for him to be fired.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. A team member has a performance issue. Managers and peers notice, but no one has the guts to address the problem. Everyone hopes the problem will go away on its own, but instead it escalates until, eventually, the person’s employment is called into question. A manager finally talks to the team member about the problem, but by that point, everyone is so frustrated that the team member is destined for failure. The team member cannot improve quickly enough and either loses his job or, at least, the respect of his co-workers.
We Have a Misguided Sense of Kindness
These problems occur because we have a misguided sense of kindness and value our personal comfort over others’ growth. For some reason, we are hardwired to believe that criticism is unkind because it could potentially hurt another person’s feelings. But what is more unkind: being honest with someone so they have the opportunity to improve or setting them up to fail because they don’t realize there is a problem with their behavior or performance?
Unfortunately, when your greatest fear is causing emotional pain to someone, you leave a lot of bodies in your wake. You lower the quality standard in your organization, you permit problems to fester, and you allow people to get fired when they might have been able to improve.
In her recent book Powerful, former Netflix Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord sums up the problem succinctly: “One of the most important insights anyone in business can have is that it’s not cruel to tell people the truth respectfully and honestly.”
If we can embrace that idea and re-define kindness to include candor, we can enhance the development of our co-workers and our companies.
How to Be Candid without Being Callous
One of the reasons so many of us worry about being candid is that we aren’t confident in our ability to deliver honest feedback in a way that is constructive and not hurtful. We don’t know how to offer criticism about another person’s performance without it coming across as criticism of the person themselves. Or we might be angry or frustrated over the issue and are worried these emotions might get in the way of us delivering the message effectively. We worry about coming across poorly or saying the wrong thing and so we get in our own way.
The seven tips below have helped me in my quest for candor. Hopefully they can help you too.
1. Assume Positive Intent
This is an easy phrase to say, but a tough one to live. So often, we assume the worst of people, “That person has no respect for me!” or “He must not be very smart if he feels that way.” When we assume positive intent, however, we pause to consider whether there are other explanations for someone’s behavior that we haven’t considered.
In the book Crucial Conversations, authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler challenge readers to ask themselves the following question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?”
Author and speaker Brené Brown puts this another way: “What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”
Let’s say you have a team member who has shown up late to work every day for the past week. Your initial reaction is probably frustration. You have clearly communicated the time everyone is supposed to arrive, so you assume this team member is either lazy, unorganized, forgetful, or even rebellious. Perhaps you create a mental narrative that this person is trying to undermine your leadership authority with the rest of the team.
Jumping to these types of conclusions is unproductive and injurious. Many situations could cause someone to arrive to work late. Maybe the team member’s car broke down and they don’t have the money to fix it, so they’ve been walking or taking public transit to work each day. Maybe their spouse is out of town, so they’ve had to drop their child off at daycare before work. Maybe their mom just suffered a heart attack, so they’ve been staying up late visiting her in the hospital because they don’t know how many days she has left.
We have no way of knowing the causes of others’ actions. When we assume positive intent, we make it easier to have a conversation without things becoming heated.
2. Start with Questions
Because you don’t know the other person’s situation and intentions, it’s best to start with questions rather than statements when sharing feedback.
In the example above of the employee arriving late, you could open the conversation by saying, “I noticed that you’ve arrived after 8:00 am every day this week. What caused you to arrive late?”
We know what we’ve observed, but we don’t know anything about the other person’s story. Questions are the key to unlock their story and hear their perspective.
3. Acknowledge the Difference Between Intentions and Actions
“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior,” says author Stephen M.R. Covey.
By distinguishing between intentions and actions, we can better understand how to critique a person’s behavior without critiquing the person.
Intent operates in the realm of “positive” and “negative,” whereas actions operate in the realm of “effective” or “ineffective.” As an example, perhaps our tardy employee had the positive intent of waking up on time for work everyday, but they have a bad habit of turning off their alarm instead of hitting the snooze button. Once you understand that’s the situation, you can explain that you value their positive intention of trying to get to work on time, but their tardiness is negatively impacting the rest of the team by putting more work on others.
4. Facts Are Better than Interpretations
Similarly, when providing feedback, it is imperative to separate facts from our interpretations. Facts are the least controversial and most persuasive way to express candor.
Let’s say your team works out of a case queue, and one team member has been completing half as many cases as the rest of the team.
Here’s what it sounds like to share interpretations instead of facts:
- “Why are you so slow?”
- “You haven’t been working as hard as the rest of us.”
- “It seems the team isn’t your biggest priority.”
- “Your slowness is making me stay late.”
To contrast, here’s what it sounds like to share facts and ask productive questions:
- “I noticed that this month you’ve been closing five cases per day while most of the team has been closing ten cases per day. What do you think is causing the discrepancy in cases closed?”
- “I’ve had to stay two hours later than normal each day this week because we’ve had so many cases to do. I’m trying to dive to the bottom of that to see how we can all leave on time. I noticed you haven’t been closing as many cases as normal. Has anything been impacting your workflow?”
Sharing facts rather than interpretations opens the door to further discussion. Our goal should be to get all possible knowledge out into the open. Facts lead to more facts. When we begin with objective information, we encourage the other party to share objective information as well.
5. Exhibit Confident Humility
Confident people know what they know and know what they don’t know. They speak clearly and confidently when sharing feedback because they know they’re sharing factual information about what they’ve observed.
Humble people admit they don’t know everything, and they take accountability for their own mistakes. They know that giving feedback without acknowledging their own role in the situation is disingenuous and hypocritical. Humble people seek to understand others, ask questions to learn from others, and listen closely to the answers to those questions.
Our goal should be to thread the needle between confidence and humility. Candor without confidence can lead the listener to think we’re grasping at straws or sharing feedback on someone else’s behalf. Candor without humility shuts down dialogue. We must be both confident and humble when sharing feedback.
Several years ago, I was working with a new employee who was struggling to complete the tasks he was given. Everyone on the team liked him as a person, but his work was lagging behind expectations.
In a situation like this, it’s important to confidently and assertively tell the employee that they’re not meeting your expectations. In doing so, you must stand your ground and share specific examples of what you’ve observed. However, you must balance that confidence with the humility of being open to the possibility that you’ve missed something. In this situation, I asked the employee whether his onboarding had adequately prepared him for the job. I asked him whether I could provide any additional support or clarify expectations about the job. Combining confidence with humility provides the right balance of candor and open-mindedness, leading to a productive conversation.
6. Make Eye Contact
For many years, I had a habit of avoiding eye contact when giving feedback to others. I subconsciously thought that avoiding eye contact would “soften the blow” and make the feedback easier to swallow for the recipient. I was wrong.
I realized my mistake after a couple follow-up conversations with employees to whom I had recently given feedback. Those employees thought my feedback was either impersonal or that I didn’t personally believe what I told them. By avoiding eye contact, I had inadvertently de-humanized a very human and personal situation.
Since then, I’ve been working to intentionally make eye contact whenever I’m speaking with someone else. Making eye contact communicates to the other person that you are engaged in the conversation, that they have your full attention, and that you acknowledge their presence and, therefore, what they are saying. Eye contact is also a sign of confidence, related to the earlier concept of exercising confident humility.
7. Don’t Sugarcoat or “Sandwich” Feedback
Under the guise of kindness, we often try to soften feedback. We do this in many ways.
We downplay feedback, even when we know the issue is causing significant problems. We “sandwich” a tough message between two compliments so the person leaves feeling happy. We sympathize by saying we’ve made the same mistake before. We dilute the message by saying too much or beating around the bush.
Two years ago, when at a previous job, I had to give feedback to a direct report who had been extremely pessimistic and about whom other team members had begun to complain. I shared the feedback with the team member, but ended the conversation by telling her several things she was doing well.
One week later, I checked in with the team member to tell her I had observed her engaging in some of the same behaviors we had discussed the week prior. She was shocked and said her recollection of our prior conversation was that I had told her how well she was doing. My feedback was entirely lost amidst the fuzzy compliments I paid her at the end of the conversation.
Unfortunately, the more justification we provide and the more we downplay a difficult message, the less likely the person is to receive the message we’re trying to share. When sharing hard messages, we must be direct and assertive. That’s not to say that we can never share positive messages along with negative ones, but in doing so, we must be abundantly clear with our direct feedback to ensure the core message is not lost.
Giving feedback is never easy, but it’s one of the most selfless things we can do. We need to value others’ growth over our personal comfort. Using these seven tactics can improve your ability to give meaningful, constructive feedback.
For additional reading, check out these great books on feedback: