Yesterday I had the opportunity to road test (with a live group of managers) something that has been brewing in my mind for some time: that kindness is the key to effective feedback.  I was a bit concerned how bankers would react to the idea.  Judging by the number scribbling it down, I needn’t have worried.  Perhaps I’ve hit on something?

Feedback is central to most of what I do.  I often discuss how it should be given, in hypothetical (training) and live situations and, of course, I spend countless hours carefully honing the feedback I give to those working with me! I wish. I’m regularly struck by how people use the idea of truth when considering feedback; truth is viewed as some sort of trump card: ‘but, it’s true’ appears to imply both that the feedback must be imparted and that it will land well.  Closer analysis often reveals that anyone seeking refuge in truth has not properly planned what they want to say.  They can’t predict how it will land, but they can’t be responsible for that because after all, all they are doing is relaying the truth.

I needed a response to ‘but it’s true!’  What I’ve found apparently has its roots in Buddhist thinking which pleases me because it is the one religion in which that I have dabbled ineffectually.  Also mindfulness, a key tenet of Buddhist thinking, is steadily becoming part of mainstream thinking about management and leadership.  Followers of other religions will I am sure claim that truth and kindness are central to their brand of spirituality.  It’s no surprise that theologians have (possibly inadvertently) provided guidance on how to make diverse workplaces more effective.

How to handle truth when giving feedback

First check that what you view as truth is actually truth; that it happened as you are saying it did.  It is often someone’s perception and so, if that is the case, position it as such.  In a recent attempt to reconcile a wronged employee and her employer about historical performance and pay, the employee opened our first meeting by saying “I get that there are no realities here; that it is all about perception; theirs and mine.”  Not many adversaries I’ve worked with share that awareness.

Once you have isolated the truth that you want to feedback, you need to focus on three questions:

Is it necessary?  Do you actually have to tell someone the truth in your possession? Just because it is true, does not mean that you must impart it.  Much will depend on your overall objective for the employee.  If, which I very much hope is the case, the objective involves development, the reframed question would be: ‘is sharing this truth an effective way to develop the person?’  In which case, please impart!

The managers and leaders I work with require no incentive at all to avoid giving feedback. I fear citing ‘necessity’ may provide them with an excuse.  My strong inclination is to advocate a presumption of necessity; any truth with developmental value should be shared – because avoidance creates far more employment problems than poor execution.  Someone who hasn’t spent 25 years dealing with employment problems might prefer to say that regular, constructive feedback drives employee engagement.

I should possibly share with you that when they are pressed, feedback avoiders always offer the same explanation for their inaction: fear of (an emotional) reaction.  Which I should warn anybody earning more than the Prime Minister (and indeed  others) often sounds a bit flimsy when it’s written down.  ‘You earn [X] and you were worried that s/he might cry?’

Is it timely?  Is now the right time to impart the truth in your possession? The answer to this question will always be yes, provided that you have not delayed too long.  Truth loses its developmental value over time.  The best time to provide feedback is now, while it’s fresh.  With one caveat: that you have had time properly to prepare (and, of course, it is both necessary to impart and … kind.)

Is it kind?  Are you delivering the truth in a kind way?  This is the transformational word that determines howyou are going to impart the truth.  It needs to be done in a kind way; a benevolent, considerate and helpful way.  Helpful (which is what ‘benevolent’ basically means) is, of course, what you are setting out to be; you are trying to develop someone.  Considerate (and its noun ‘consideration’) is a word that I have recently discussed at some length and to good effect with about a thousand bank workers who were both happy to embrace it and properly understood it.  It’s all about having regard for someone else’s feelings, understanding that they will have different reactions to you.  A requirement to deliver truth kindly requires you to focus on the likely impact of what you are going to say, how it will land.  This is not something that comes naturally to most people I work with.

A requirement to deliver truth kindly requires you to focus on the likely impact of what you are going to say, how it will land.  This is not something that comes naturally to most people I work with.