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Feedback: Cruel or Kind?

Note: this is the second in a series of posts I am writing on the elements of being a successful manager. For the first entry, see People First, the Human Factor.

We hear the word “Feedback” thrown around all the time: “I’m open to feedback”, “I’d really like your feedback”, “thanks for the feedback”, etc. As managers, it’s critical to understand how and when to provide feedback. Feedback can have a big impact on helping people identify opportunities for change and personal growth.

Positive feedback is typically easier to give than negative feedback, but both are equally important when delivered appropriately. In People First, the Human Factor, I talked about building and maintaining deep personal relationships. These are key to the success of any manager, however they can make it hard to give negative feedback. Often you care about the person and don’t want to hurt their feelings. You might think it is kinder to tone down the feedback and deliver it in smaller doses over time, so they have time to absorb the feedback. This is absolutely not true - think of it like pulling off a Band-Aid. Do you want to prolong the pain?

Years ago at a management seminar, a presenter opened with, “There’s a Russian story about a man who loved his dog so much that when the vet told him he needed to cut the dog’s tail off he couldn’t do it all at once, so he did it an inch at a time. Don’t be that kind of manager.” It has stuck with me throughout the years and helped me remember how important it is to deliver difficult and timely feedback. Sometime you have to be cruel to be kind.

It’s still important to be empathetic, but not to the extent of the man who wouldn’t cut off the dog’s tail. Don’t water down the feedback. Giving unclear, infrequent feedback has a similar effect. You end up hurting the person receiving the feedback more. Even though you’re following the advice your parents always gave you: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. True respect and true leadership mean at times you have to deal with the root issue, and not play it safe. Find a way to get to the heart of what you need to tell someone. Will it be easy? Absolutely not.

Providing feedback can be very emotional, with responses ranging from yelling to tears. These are difficult conversations, but you are there to focus on the solution, not the blame. When you deliver the difficult messages and they hear you, you will build trust.

When it comes to delivering the feedback, just say it as simply and directly as possible. A lot of management training ties you in knots trying to say things just right. Be thoughtful and truthful and it will be fine. Say it in private and as soon as possible. Feedback has a half-life and if you are delivering negative feedback, waiting always makes the situation worse.

What about positive feedback? Managers tend to expect that praise is easier than criticism, but praise can go awry. If you don’t know the details, or if you’re not sincere, it can actually be worse for the person than saying nothing. Make it specific, not just “good job”. Praise in public, but only if you know you’re absolutely right and you mean it. Otherwise people will see right through you.

As a manager, it’s also critical that you solicit feedback, but don’t be surprised if it’s hard to get to feedback. Very few people are willing to offer truthful feedback to their managers. I like to ask at the end of 1:1 meetings, but some managers prefer to schedule a special 1:1 for manager feedback.

Make it easy for them to start the conversation. Ask, “What can I start doing?”, “What should I stop doing?”, and “What should I keep doing?”. Whatever the answers are, come up with a formula that makes it easier to get the ball rolling at the start.

To get people to open up, you have to make them uncomfortable. Otherwise, they’ll say you’re doing great and will try to move on. Try just sitting there, silently. Figure out a way to make it impossible for people not to tell you what they really think, because if they can get out of telling you what you’re doing wrong, they will. Thank them for their honesty and trusting you enough to be open about growth opportunities. Make a commitment to embrace the feedback, show you care about it, and are willing to take steps to improve. Check back in during your next 1:1 to continue the open dialogue and maintain the trust.

Change and personal growth are all about discovering the inevitability of change and the need to clarify a vision of the future. Quality feedback, both positive and negative, can help shape a vision of the future.