Don’t Soften Feedback

Nov 22, 2021

When I talk about balancing being directive and empowering as a leader, the distinction between being kind and being nice often comes up.

Sometimes, folks who have to deliver hard-to-hear feedback soften it to the point where their teammate doesn’t clearly understand what they should do next. This feedback-giver is trying to be nice: they’re aiming to avoid hurting the person’s feelings, catching them by surprise, hijacking their amygdala, or demoralizing them.

But by softening the feedback so much that it becomes fuzzy, the feedback-giver has inadvertently set up their teammate to fail.

How does this happen?

I’ve been seeing managers draft lots of too-fuzzy, too-vague feedback during the pandemic. Because the world is upside-down, we’re more aware than ever of the pressures, complications, and grief outside of the work environment, and the effect that’s all having on our teammates.

Managers risk defaulting to softened feedback when they’re afraid of adding even more pressure to their teammate who’s suffering. I get it! They don’t want to make it worse, and they truly care about their teammate’s health and wellbeing. But again, softening feedback to this degree will make the work to come much more challenging for this teammate.

Even outside of pandemic times, I’ve mentioned that I witness this feedback-softening happen when a white manager is preparing to give feedback to a person of color.

Out of fear of being perceived as biased, or not wanting to compound existing inequities in the workplace, white managers tend to soften feedback to people of color enough that it inhibits their growth, limits their impact on business drivers, and sets them up for further failure. This happens for other members of minoritized groups, too.

What to do instead

Managers: it’s your responsibility to clearly (and kindly) articulate what’s expected of your teammates in their roles, and what the gaps are. If you avoid being direct—even if it sucks to do so, on top of everything else happening in the world!—you’re setting them up for failure.

Here are some reminders to nudge you back towards clarity and directness when you feel that instinct to soften feedback, especially when you’re delivering feedback to a member of a minoritized group.

  1. Learn how to succinctly state your point

  2. Distinguish the facts from your assumptions or judgments

  3. Tie all feedback to business outcomes

  4. Filter peer feedback for bias

Learn how to bottom-line

“Bottom lining” is a skill I learned in coach training: succinctly say, in as few words as possible, what your point is. For each piece of feedback you need to deliver, spend time honing in on the “bottom line” before you deliver it. We tend to rattle on out of nerves, or wanting to thoroughly explain and provide context; doing so can increase ambiguity and confusion.

So for each aspect of your feedback (facts, then impact/outcomes), aim to deliver a one-sentence “bottom line”. You can still do this with empathy and care—there’s no need to sound angry or annoyed with your succinct delivery! But by delivering your thesis statement with care, you can then graduate from a one-way feedback dump to a two-way supportive, collaborative conversation.

Focus on the facts first

For each piece of feedback, get really clear about the who, what, when, and where. Your “observation” of someone’s behavior is the first part of the feedback equation, and it’s critical to remove your judgments and assumptions from any statement about the behavior you’re giving feedback about.

You might not even realize you’re beginning to describe your judgments or assumptions, rather than the facts. It’s hard to remove our personal perspective from things we find important, at work or not. But it’s worth being extra mindful here. This work is all about building a shared context between you and your teammate so that the feedback can land and your teammate can take action.

You might be tempted to skip over this part! This person already knows what they’re doing, so why belabor the point?

If you skip this step, you run the risk of the feedback being misunderstood, ambiguous, or not taken seriously. It’s your job to make sure that you both have a shared understanding of the behavior and the context! You’ll need to be specific. If you’re familiar with the SBI approach to feedback (Situation-Behavior-Impact) you’ve already got practice with this!

Situation: Where is this behavior occurring? When? What’s the context? Is this a one-off, or a pattern? Be specific!
Behavior: What’s this person saying or doing? Make sure that this is fact-based, not hearsay, not inference, and not assumptions.

This doesn’t just have to be for constructive or negative feedback—do this for positive feedback too! “When you presented our team’s work at the All Hands meetings, you delivered a deeply compelling story and data points that helped everyone in our organization care deeply about the work we do, and you made it tremendously clear how our work supports the whole company’s goals.”

Remember that we’re aiming for a bottom-line here: just one or two sentences for the facts, max!

Tie all feedback to business outcomes

You are likely already tying your feedback back to documented role and level expectations. But it’s important to take it one step further: explicitly connect the behavior that you’re seeing this person exhibit, or the behavior that you want to see, to business outcomes.

Again, this is important for both positive and constructive feedback!

In Coqual’s study on “Executive Presence and Multicultural Professionals”, they found that when multicultural professionals (African American, Asian, and Hispanic individuals) do get feedback, “data shows they’re unclear as to how to act on it, particularly if they were born outside the U.S.”

In HBR’s study “Vague feedback is holding women back,” they found that “women consistently received less feedback tied to business outcomes. The vague feedback lets women know they are generally doing a good job, but it does not identify which specific actions are valued or the positive impact of their accomplishments.” Their research highlighted that this vague feedback is correlated to lower performance review ratings for women, but not for men.

So: explicitly connect the dots between the (factual and specific!) behavior you’re seeing from your teammate and the outcomes that your team or organization care about. If you can’t describe how your teammates’ behavior directly relates to important business outcomes, don’t give that feedback. This applies to the next section on synthesizing peer feedback, too!

Make sure that your feedback for members of minoritized groups is not just about correcting existing behavior, but also highlighting opportunities for new behaviors that directly impact business outcomes. In HBR’s article “Women of Color Get Less Support at Work. Here’s How Managers Can Change That.” the authors write:

Assess potential, not just competencies. Few executives have all the competencies desired for leadership roles. In these instances, hiring managers often make a bet on who they believe can do the job well based on their past experiences and qualifications. But this can have the unintended consequence of excluding women of color, who probably haven’t been given the same opportunities as their white and male colleagues.

If you find yourself trying to soften parts of the feedback or make it a little hand-wavy, remind yourself that your teammate deserves to know what specifically they can be doing better, and why. You owe it to them to give them all of the information they need to be successful.

Yes, the feedback or the business impact of their behavior (or potential!) might be surprising or hard to hear. That means it’s even more important for you to be clear with your teammate, so that they can more efficiently digest the feedback and know how to take action. Again, aim to deliver the bottom-line: what’s the one- or two-sentence version of your teammate’s business impact?

Filter peer feedback for bias

As a manager, you’ll likely need to synthesize other people’s feedback as you put together your teammates’ performance reviews. I’ve written about how to synthesize that feedback here, but when you’re managing a member of a minoritized group, you’ll need to take extra care to filter that peer feedback for bias:

Managers: if an URM works for you, their peer’s feedback will be full of bias. It’s literally your job to actively filter and correct for it. And help your report strategize ways to work around it. For women, look for bias keywords: abrasive, loud, pushy, not technical, etc.

— Nicole Sullivan

I first saw this tweet from Nicole Sullivan in this excellent post on performance reviews by Jill Wetzler. Elaborating on what this work looks like, Jill writes:

It is not just our job to identify and filter out bias, but it’s also our job to correct it… When a product manager says your Latina engineer “tends to be abrasive”, this is your opportunity to ask for specific examples that tie back to negative team impact (and send them a link to “The abrasiveness trap” as you ask). This doesn’t necessarily mean the feedback is invalid, but it does give you the opportunity to alter someone’s thinking and bring any potential bias into their conscious mind.

— Jill Wetzler

I’ve just described a ton of work, in addition to the hours you already spend preparing for your whole team’s performance reviews. You have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to deliver fair, clear, and empowering feedback to all of your teammates. Given how deeply you care about the inequities that your minoritized teammates face, I trust that you can put in this extra effort to do right by them.

By Lara Hogan