(As seen in Inc.)
We are all familiar with the wrong way to give feedback at work by doling out advice in a manner that is overly severe, unreasonable, or unforgiving. But we don’t give enough attention to the other wrong way to give feedback: in a manner that is far too nice.
Nice feedback is predominantly motivated by a desire to avoid conflict and protect feelings. While it may be well-intentioned and seem totally benign, in practice, it can be so vague that it leads to a breakdown in communication with very bad outcomes for teams and their companies.
This matters because strong communication is a prerequisite for high-performing organizations. When team members can challenge one another respectfully, the best ideas are unearthed, leading to stronger individual and organizational performance. Feedback, even critical feedback, builds a culture fueled by growth and improvement, rather than one held back by mediocrity. Without this open communication, important information can fall through the cracks, leading to misunderstanding, misalignment, and poor performance.
Consider a teammate we’ll call John Johnson. He had been thriving in his role, but shortly after being promoted, he began dropping the ball. John’s manager cared for him and considered him a friend. As a result, his manager struggled with giving John critical feedback. In my exit interview with John, he couldn’t understand why he was being let go. It was clear to me that John had never received transparent feedback on what he had done wrong and how to improve. In not wanting to hurt John’s feelings, John’s manager had wound up hurting him far more by never giving him the feedback he needed and deserved.
Nice feedback is a problem at all tiers of an organization and has big repercussions at the leadership level. If team members are nervous about offending senior leaders, those instrumental players within an organization run the risk of believing they are infallible. When our ideas are never challenged, we may assume it’s because we are always correct, which is never the case. On top of this, conversations that team members are too afraid to have candidly in the open inevitably find their outlet in less professional settings, contributing to a workplace in which backdoor politics lead to discontent and “toxicity.”
Nice feedback should not be confused with kind feedback, which is constructive, useful, and powered by positive intent. Kind feedback is motivated by a desire to strengthen one another. It empowers team members to learn from their mistakes, develop new skills, and ultimately build toward successful outcomes. When we give kind feedback, we do our team members the courtesy of giving them clarity on how they fell short as well as coaching them on how to improve.
Consider the friend who let you know you had spinach in your teeth. That friend had the courage to help you fix a problem, even if it left you embarrassed. Then consider the friend who was too uncomfortable to speak up. That person may have been motivated by niceness, but their niceness left you with a hunk of green stuff in your teeth.
Kind feedback is neither mean and disrespectful nor so nice that it leads to a communication breakdown — it’s somewhere right in the middle. When giving kind feedback (and it’s something I’m still working at), I try to use a guiding framework of the Four Cs: Connection, Concreteness, Coaching, and Conversation.
Connecting is about making it clear that you care about your teammates and their success. In other words, your motivation is to help. A connection may include buffering your critical feedback with a compliment, but if — and only if — the compliment is authentic and doesn’t distract from the more important message you need to deliver. Connection can include relating to your teammate by drawing from your own experience making a similar error. What did you learn, and how did that ultimately make you stronger?
You want to be Concrete in delivering critical feedback. In part, that means giving feedback immediately versus waiting. If you give your teammate feedback a week after a mistake was made, it may be unclear exactly which challenge you are referring to. Concreteness also refers to specificity. Make it obvious which specific actions you found problematic and why, so that generalization doesn’t breed confusion. The more detail you can provide, the better.
Once you have diagnosed the problem, you have a responsibility to offer a solution. Prepare your proposed remedies in advance by mapping specific ways that you and your teammate can work together to improve performance in the future. This is what it means to give Coaching.
It’s important to make feedback a Conversation. Ask your teammate for their points of view. Open up the space for the introspection needed for continued growth. Your conversation shouldn’t end in your first meeting. Follow up to let your teammate know the next time they get it right.
In our current social climate, in which terms like “cancel culture” have been used to connote judgmentalism and intolerance for error that can be extreme, team members may be more intimidated than ever to voice feedback, especially when that feedback is not entirely positive. As a result, we may be more at risk today of giving wrong feedback in the form of niceness than we are in the form of just plain jerkiness. It follows that, just as we seek to protect our cultures from mean-spiritedness and disrespect, we also need to prevent the problem of erring so heavily on the side of not hurting peoples’ feelings that we inadvertently create a dysfunctional workplace in which communication is broken.