When you're faced with a situation in which you must share critical feedback in a work context, such as an annual review, project discussion, or committee update, most of us want to remain honest while maintaining good relationships with colleagues. So how can you share honest and valuable feedback in a likable manner? This is not as easy as you might think.
As a frequent recipient of the feedback that I am “blunt,” have a “big personality,” and am “full of myself” (a critique I've received since that age of eight), I put effort into offering feedback that is productive and will also result in decent ratings for my own likability.
This is tricky, because having these conversations with coworkers involves imparting advice and information that they may not want to hear, but need to know. This also isn't what necessary helps you win friends, fans, or followers or helps you cultivate a reputation as a loveable or even likable leader.
While avoiding being disingenuous, I do make efforts to find ways to cultivate positive relationships with peers, co-workers, team members and those in my charge as mentees or assistants. It does not have to involve baked goods, lunch at a great restaurant, or socializing over drinks after work. It involves authenticity and carefully managing expectations.
Harvard Business School researchers Paul Green, Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats write that the paradox of giving honest feedback—unless masterfully delivered—is that much of the time, it results in the recipent feeling upset and avoiding or disliking the person who provides it.
“The idea behind performance appraisals, and feedback in general, is that to grow and improve, we must have a light shined on the things we can’t see about ourselves. We need the brutal truth," the authors write. "There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they’re not as good as they think they are. But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them. It may not be having the intended effect at all."
“Negative feedback manifests itself as a psychological threat. Whether it’s conscious or not, we don’t know. It’s probably a little of both, but it’s such a fundamental, deep-seated drive to want a circle of people around us that will prop us up. And we’ll go to great measures to create that circle if we have to.”
Jane Claire Hervey, creator of the production studio, Group Work, writes in Forbes, “When I noticed a problem within our operations, I pointed it out. If I thought there were areas in which we could improve, I spoke up. If I had a good idea, I gave it. But, more often than not, this feedback was met with silence and inaction, and over time I began to contribute less and less.” Eventually she quit.
But it's still possible to follow this advice while maintaining your integrity as someone who is not offering participation trophies at every turn and looking to gain friends, followers, and fans, but is still forthright and polite when delivering feedback.
The traditional "compliment sandwich" approach—offering two compliments with criticism in between—is no longer considered an effective way of conducting the critical conversation. Instead, use the parfait approach: Offer layers of credible advice and information that is not doused in emotion. This is a way to make it about facts, not feelings. Influence people by discussing their performance objectively, eliminating the social component. Show numbers concerning productivity and prove the point with objective figures, not subjective impressions.
Build rapport with team members by offering lots of avenues for talking about performance and delivering feedback. Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, tells Forbes: “You can’t assume that one channel of feedback is going to work for everyone. So the more avenues to provide for people to give feedback and weigh in, the better. Some people might prefer town hall meetings, while others prefer electronic employee surveys. The richness of how you communicate–the varying formats and mediums–allows you to reach everyone.”
Get to the point: Melody Whiting, a life coach who teaches human behavior at The City University of New York, writes, “When problems go unaddressed or are swept under the rug, everyone suffers—including you. Avoiding conflict doesn’t just keep you from fulfilling your responsibilities, it also erodes your self-esteem. No one likes being the office push-over and constantly questioning yourself can take a toll on your confidence levels. A lack of constructive feedback is also detrimental to your team, depriving them of mentorship and growth opportunities. Workplaces marked by poor communication and unclear expectations are also breeding grounds for Imposter Syndrome, low trust, and disengagement.”
Model the process of respectful critique. Leaders must start the process by actively modeling how to talk about performance and encouraging team members to do the same. In a recent HBR article, Ron Carucci suggests that if leaders want to start understanding how others genuinely perceive them they should practice the following: Ask teammates to push back, read non-verbal cues, eye contact, and body language, don’t rationalize, and know your triggers. In Chief Executive, Jack McGuinness suggests encouraging others to call you out on your own body language and triggers.
Make it about the mission. Refer to the goal of the project or even mission of your organization, team, or corporation. Make sure find ways to express that this feedback is not personal, nor is about personality; it’s about getting to the end goal. Talking about a time you received difficult feedback and how it helped you is one way to build rapport with colleagues. But make your story brief, and focus more on the situation at hand—you don't want to make it all about you.
Embrace controversy. This is Take the Lead co-found and President Gloria Feldt's power tool #4 of her 9 Leadership Power Tools. This method involves offering critical feedback, even if your feedback may be controversial a lot of the time. This demonstrates that you are willing to take on that burden of forgoing the love of your team in order to reach the end goal and improve the outcome. In other words, it's always about how to get people to like you.
Feldt writes, “Embracing controversy gives you a platform. Nudges you to clarity. It’s your teacher, your source of strength, your friend, especially if you are trying to make a change.” This will also earn you the respect of your teammates, colleagues, and fellow leaders and allow you to influence people in effort to improve outcomes.
Michele Weldon is the editorial director of Take The Lead, and an author, journalist, and senior leader with The OpEd Project.