Don’t Sugarcoat Your Feedback

Be direct, don’t sugarcoat, and make it about what they want, not about you.

Humans can generally handle the truth — and truth- telling is full of nuances. When used inappropriately, truth is a powerful weapon; when wielded with awareness and integrity, it is a highly effective tool. In the latter use, we aren’t avoiding correction or conflict; we are being direct in order to build a relationship rather than break it down.

Be reminded: In the 1980s, an ill-conceived communication tool for leaders spread across the workplaces of America like a bad flu: the “feedback sandwich.” Tell an employee something good, then point out what’s wrong, then add something else good. This false “rapport building” is manipulative and based upon a flawed notion — that indirect speech has more influence than direct speech.

This is patently wrong.

Adults are adults. We do not need others to sugarcoat what is not working; instead, we need opportunities for growth. Growth only happens when listening is part of the communication formula. And frankly, the sandwich formula causes the person not to FEEL the positive feedback and only focus on the negative anyway.

I can’t hear you when you tell me how great my hair looks, then tell me my feet smell. I would rather you just take me aside and say “your feet stink.” Compliment my hair after I’ve changed my socks (and only if my hair looks nice).

We can be direct while coaching for correction. Being direct does not mean being offensive. It means being clear and free of prejudices and judgment — which is the case when we are centered and focused on our desire for a positive outcome. Direct feedback is fact-based and a conversation, not a confrontation. This leaves the other person open and able to provide us with details we may not have known without our having told the truth. Maybe I keep limburger cheese in my shoes.

Here’s a real example. Alicia came to work late three times in the past two weeks. Her manager Alexandra sat her down in the office and said:

“Alicia, you are a good employee. You get your work done, and we like you. BUT, you keep coming in late, which shows disrespect for the team. Please stop.”

Alicia leaves the office unhappy and uninspired. What if Alexandra had instead said:

“Alicia, I know you are interested in becoming management with this firm. I worry that your recent tardiness is going to stand in your way. Tell me what is happening. This isn’t like you.”

Near tears, Alicia tells her manager she has been coming in late because her mother, who has been living with her for over a year, is near death.

Which tactic encourages communication? Obviously, the method without sugarcoating allows the truth to come out, so that together, manager and team member can figure out a solution to her temporary tardiness problem. How people feel about themselves around a leader drives either commitment or compliance. Direct feedback that does not make a person feel small accelerates clarity and performance.

This post is an edited excerpt from her first book, ‘Your Professionalism is Killing You’, copyright Christina Harbridge.

Behavior change company. Before you can change a mind, sell a product or save the world, you must be heard.

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