Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful

Ron* was up next. As a senior analyst in this investment firm — and a good one — he knew a lot about the company he was about to pitch to the management committee.

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 Ron 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, Laurie, the head of the firm, thanked him for his work, specifically remarking on his exhaustive research. He smiled and thanked her.

Everyone filed out except Laurie 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. “Ron?”

“He’s a great analyst, a smart investor, and a really nice guy. But he talks too much.”

“But you told him he did a great job!”

“His analysis was great. But his presentation . . .” She trailed off with a chuckle.

“Have you told him?”

“I’ve hinted but no, not specifically.”

“Why not?”

“I probably should.”

But she hasn’t. And the reason is simple: Laurie is nice.

I know her socially and she’s a delight. 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 it’s neither. It’s compassionate.

If we don’t provide each other with feedback, we won’t become aware of our blind spots. Which means that Ron will continue to drone on and, without ever understanding why, lose his audience and his impact.

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.

Laurie knows this. And yet even for Laurie — a competent and courageous CEO — 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, you should.

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. In How to Handle Surprise Criticism I shared my own struggles with accepting criticism and offered some tips to being open to learning from critical feedback from others.

But 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.

“May I offer you a thought?” I asked Laurie as we finished up our conversation.

“Please do,” she responded.

“Not telling Ron that he drones on is hurting him, you, and the business. I know you feel badly sharing the criticism but in this particular case, choosing not to share this feedback is a selfish behavior. You’re hurting him in order to avoid your own discomfort. He needs — deserves — to know, don’t you think?”

Silence. It was an awkward moment.

Which, it turns out, is a useful catalyst to action. Laurie thought for a moment and then picked up her blackberry and emailed Ron, asking him to meet later that day.

*Names and some details changed