Giving direct, difficult feedback is one of the most important and anxiety-inducing leadership tasks. Yet, the leaders who master this skill find that clear, connected conversations about what’s working and what’s not reduce the emotional turbulence in an organization and give people the critical information they need to develop. 

Early in my career, as a first-time startup leader, I managed a woman (“Mary”) who was wonderfully talented in many ways, but who routinely underperformed in a few critical areas. Despite this consistent underperformance, I found myself unable to give her direct, useful feedback. It felt unkind to criticize her. I wanted to lead an egalitarian organization, and at the time, I felt like the “do better or else” message others were asking me to give her would fly in the face of that ideal. It didn’t occur to me; there might be another way to deliver the message. 

Eventually, the company entered a difficult period, and we decided to reduce our staff. As a result of her performance, Mary was included in the layoff. The decision didn’t sit well with me at the time and, over many years of reflection since, I see now that it wasn’t her underperformance that led to the loss of her job, but my own. 

Many of us find it difficult to give critical feedback. One study of over 7,500 leaders found that over a fifth of leaders don’t bother doing it at all. Is it just the interpersonal discomfort that naturally arises from making critical assessments of others? Maybe not. A 1996 review of the feedback literature found that over one-third of “feedback interventions” actually reduced performance! We’re not just avoiding our own discomfort, we’re avoiding sharing a message that could hurt performance. 

In the decade since that layoff, I’ve been working to discover the art of giving feedback, for my own sake and as a tool for the leaders I coach and advise, from first-time managers in the fast-moving startup world to the leaders of some of the largest and most important institutions. I’ve found that when we are anxious about giving feedback, it’s often because we’re trapped in a critical mindset. 

So, how can a critical message be transformed into an inspirational one? The key is not the message you deliver, but in how you orient yourself. 

 From a critical boss…

Often, we approach difficult conversations as if we are a boss delivering bad news. As a result, we over-focus on the message’s content and under-focus on the outcome we’re trying to create (better performance). We get stuck managing our own anxiety rather than designing the experience for the receiver. The subconscious mindset driving all of this is: “something is wrong with the person I’m giving feedback to.” 

To inspiring coach…

The shift that the best leaders make is from criticism to possibility. They hold the mindset: “this person has even more potential than what they have realized so far.” The fact that the feedback even occurs to them is a reflection of the potential they see in the other person. How would you communicate this potential, and what advice do you have to help the person achieve it?

Rather than speaking down to the person you are giving feedback to about your criticism, imagine standing behind the person and guiding them to achieve their goals more quickly and effectively. Instead of showing up as a critical boss, you become an inspiring coach. You recognize that while they are the ones in the ring, you face the same opponent and ultimate goal. Your job is to build them up, even when you are delivering corrective advice.

If I could go back and give feedback to Mary with this orientation, it would go something like this:

Mary, I appreciate how you connect with potential clients. You have an infectious enthusiasm for the business, and that’s perhaps the most powerful sales tool we have as a company. I think there is an opportunity to take that skill to an even higher level. I’m seeing a drop in enthusiasm in the handoff between your contact with clients and the rest of the team, which means their client experience goes downhill after their first encounter with you. I want to see us build on the momentum you create rather than waste it. To do that, I see a need to tighten up the reporting and handoff process between you and the other teams. Do you agree? What do you think we could do to make that happen? 

I do not doubt that it would have been a productive conversation that would have tapped both of our best thinking and de-escalated the issue to talk about it openly. Having this conversation would have served her much more than my silence did. 

When I imagine myself in the corner of the person I’m cheering on, I am excited by the potential: I can suddenly see what’s possible for them, how they might get there faster, and what I can do to help. With this orientation, my anxiety about what to say drops considerably, and I can connect more deeply and with more respect. Extraordinary leaders realize that when they have feedback to give, the burden of responsibility for the performance gap lies in them, not the person they provide feedback to. As a result, they master the skill of delivering corrective feedback in a way that affirms the potential of the receiver and inspires committed action.