It’s not compassionate, not to tell someone the truth.

If we don’t provide each other with feedback, we won’t become aware of our blind spots. This means that we will continue to do those things that may be detrimental or at least not helpful to our careers. 

I believe giving people feedback is an act of trust and confidence. It shows that you believe in their ability to change. That you believe they will use the information to become better. And that you have faith in their potential. It’s also a sign of commitment to the team and to the larger purpose and goals of the organization. Because, ultimately, we’re all responsible for our collective success.

I was at meeting recently where a senior analyst, let’s call him Steve, a really good analyst and hard worker was going to present to a team.  He paused for a minute as he sorted through the pages of numbers in front of him and then he began to present his case.  Even though Steve described himself as a numbers guy, he seemed to really enjoy this part of his job. He was meticulous in presenting his ideas and took pride in the depth of his analysis.

Twenty minutes later, as the meeting ended, Diane, the Chief Operating Officer of the organization, thanked him for his work, specifically remarking on his exhaustive research. He smiled and thanked her.  Everyone filed out except Diane and me. I asked her how she thought the meeting went.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, “What’s the best way to handle an analyst who drones on and on?”

“Who?” I asked. “Steve?”  “He’s a great analyst, and always provides the right solutions, plus he is a really nice guy. But he talks too much.” 

“But you told him he did a great job!” I Said, “His analysis was great. But his presentation …” She trailed off with a chuckle.

“Have you told him?”  “I’ve hinted to it, but no, not specifically.”

“Why not?”  “I know I probably should.”   But she hasn’t. And the reason is simple: Diane is also really nice.

In fact I’ve never seen her do anything that could be remotely construed as mean or rude. And to tell someone that they drone on feels both mean and rude.

But, is it?

Diane knows she should provide the feedback.  She is a good senior leader, but even for her, it’s hard to give someone critical feedback because it still feels aggressive and confrontational. Should you really tell people they talk too much? Or dress poorly? Or appear insincere? Or walk all over others?

Without question, YES

And not just if you’re the CEO. Everyone should offer feedback to everyone else, regardless of position. Because as long as what you say comes from your care and support for the other person — not your sympathy (which feels patronizing) or your power (which feels humiliating) or your anger (which feels abusive) — choosing to offer a critical insight to another is a deeply considerate act.

That doesn’t mean that accepting criticism is easy. But that’s another story.  Even though it may be difficult, letting someone know what everyone else already knows is the opposite of aggressive. Aggressive is not giving people feedback and then talking about them and their issues when they aren’t around. Aggressive is watching them fail and not helping.

Ironically, when we avoid sharing feedback, it usually comes out at some point anyway, as gossip or in a burst of anger or sarcasm or blame directed at the person. And that’s aggressive. Passive-aggressive.

To avoid that kind of ugliness, it’s critical not to delay.

On the other hand, if we all strutted around willy-nilly tossing criticisms at each other, things would deteriorate quickly. So how should we do this?

First, ask permission. As in: “I noticed something I’d like to share with you. Are you interested in hearing it?” Or simply, “Can I share some feedback with you?” Once they say “yes” — and who wouldn’t? — it evens out the power dynamic, makes it easier for you to speak, and prepares the other person to accept the feedback more openly.

Second, don’t hedge. When we are uncomfortable criticizing, we try to reduce the impact by reducing the criticism. Sometimes we sandwich the criticism between two compliments. But hedging dilutes and confuses the message. Instead, be clear, be concise, use a simple example, make it about the behavior, not the person, and don’t be afraid of silence.

Third, do it often. That’s how you create a culture in which people are open and honest for each other’s benefit. If you only offer feedback once in a while, it feels out of character and more negative.

Of course, not all feedback needs to be critical. Positive feedback is excellent at reinforcing people’s productive behavior, encouraging them to use their strengths more effectively and abundantly. Offer it frequently. Just do so at a different time than you share the critical feedback.

Not telling Steve that he drones on is hurting him, Diane, and the business. Even though Diane feels badly sharing the criticism, choosing not to in this case is selfish behavior on her part.  Diane doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable.  But, Steve needs and deserves to know, don’t you think?

Well in this case it worked out.  After thinking about it Diane agreed and scheduled a meeting with Steve for later that day.