Just Tell It!

Giving Feedback Can Kill Relationships—Or Not

A corporate leader told me her leaders needed some coaching skills and wondered if I could help. She went on to explain that their culture, like many others today, is fast-paced and high-pressured. As a result the way their leaders gave their people feedback was hurried, impersonal, and, at times, even insensitive. She described it as a “just tell it” approach. But it was just not working.

How did they know it wasn’t working? 

Employees were not improving their skills, leaders were frustrated with performance levels, and employee engagement and customer service scores were down. Most troubling of all, the people with the highest potential were leaving to join the competition. In an industry that competed fiercely for talent, this was a serious business problem. 

How a supervisor gives feedback to their employees determines the quality of the relationship and ultimately the quality of work performed. If the input is perceived as harsh, uncaring, or not fully understood (i.e., unwarranted), the employee will stew and harbor anger rather than change. It would actually be better to not give feedback and allow the employee to continue making mistakes than to provoke resentment, because then you have mistakes plus a negative attitude.

However, I really believe feedback is important, and learning to do it with grace is just as important. 

Most people want to be developed, mentored, and respected as a fellow human being.

Here are some examples of what I’ve heard over the years.

  • “It’s not that I can’t handle feedback—it’s the way it’s given. When I get a text that tells me I blew it, or ‘What were you thinking?’ that doesn’t feel very good. I can’t help but feel defensive.”

  • “If my boss tells me I came across as ineffective in a meeting, I want to know more. I want to learn. I really value feedback because I want to grow.” 

  • “I know this is a place that has high standards. I appreciate it when a supervisor gives me clear input on what I can do better. I want to be well regarded and I would hate it if no one told me and then I got a negative performance review at the end of the year, or worse—fired!”

  • “My current supervisor is caring and shows an interest in my development. She often takes notice of what I’ve done well and I appreciate the praise. Maybe that’s part of it. She balances the good stuff with the things I need to change. I trust her and I think she has my back.”

However, there’s a better way to approach feedback.

Brene Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

What are the behavioral differences between the “just tell it” style and the “clear and kind” style of managing and developing people?

Just tell it

Here is what you did wrong: “You keep coming late to our meetings. This is unacceptable.”

Clear and kind

Description of the problem with the need for change plus a question to connect: “You arrived late to our meetings this week and I need you to be on time for now on. Is there something going on that makes it hard for you to do that?”

Warning (a one-way conversation)

“If you keep doing that you won’t have a job.”

Coaching (a two-way conversation)

“I hear you that you have trouble with balancing child care and getting to work on time. What can you do to change that?”

Judgmental language

“Your work has been sloppy the past few months.”

Objective language 

“Your work lately has not been up to the quality you have presented in the past.” Is there some reason for this?”

Focusing mostly on what’s wrong

“You are not showing up like you care about your work or our team.”

Balancing praise with correction

“I believe you have the talent, the drive, and the discipline. If you are willing to be on time each day and spend some extra time in training daily, I am willing to give you my support.”

How to improve is left to employee to figure out

“If you don’t make these changes soon, you will be passed over.”

Improvement steps created and discussed together

“Let’s start with the systems training manual review and assess where we are at the end of the month.”

When employees know they have clear expectations, kind communication and a leader who isn’t afraid to have honest conversations regularly, they tend to be more successful, more engaged, and happier too. 

In closing, these principles aren’t much different in marriage, parenting, or any other kind of relationship for that matter. We are designed for connection as well as performance. We need one another to be our best!

ConfrontationElaine Morris