Honest feedback, delivered with good intention, is an absolute gift. It is hard to give. It requires a sacrifice of pride, poise, and position. It often requires speaking truth to power, which can be difficult and vulnerable. But there is a spectrum of feedback that might require different approaches.
Telling someone they have “spinach in their teeth” is one end of the spectrum. The bolder of us might even point that out to a stranger, but many of us struggle to do this with our own friends, family, and co-workers. We figure they will eventually figure it out. This is a problem we all have faced, we are always thankful for the quiet aside that helps us fix it, and yet we sometimes don’t offer the same courtesy to others. This is an example of feedback that people are generally happy to hear, from someone they know and trust, as it saves them from embarrassment with others.
The other end of the spectrum is telling someone that their “baby is ugly.” Maybe not their literal baby, but perhaps their pet project at work, their big idea, or their latest obsession. It takes a lot of courage to tell someone something they will be ungrateful to hear. They might not understand. They will likely question your motivations. The feedback might fall on deaf ears or, worse, backfire. We have all heard those cautionary tales of whistle-blowers being fired, but in most cases it isn’t that dramatic, but can still feel vulnerable.
So, how do you approach giving feedback along this spectrum? I find it always useful to preface your message with a reminder that you like them and want the best for them. The spinach in the teeth might only require an “I figured you’d want to know” to start a conversation. A bigger, more emotionally tinged, situation might require you to tell them that you care about them and the company and that is what is prompting the feedback.
Always go to the person directly first. In a personal way, like face-to-face or over the phone is best. Emails or text messages are often taken harshly or misinterpreted, but that can work as well depending on the relationship. Feedback like this should never be given publicly, as that makes everything worse.
What kind of feedback have you given and what have you learned about doing it well?