Friendly Critique: 6 Ways To Stay Likable And Give Honest Feedback

Follow these tips for authentic feedback.

Follow these tips for authentic feedback.

When faced with offering critical feedback in an annual review, project discussion or committee update, most of us intend to show up as honest as well as likable. This is not as easy as you might think.

As a frequent recipient of the feedback that I am “blunt,” have a “big personality,” and since about the age of 8 that I am “full of myself,” I put effort into offering feedback that is productive and will also result in decent ratings for my own likability.

This is tricky, because telling co-workers what they may not want to hear but need to know is not what helps maintain a friendly reputation as a leader.

Telling co-workers what they may not want to hear but need to know is not what helps maintain a friendly reputation as a leader. #leadershiptips

While intending not to be disingenuous, I do make efforts to be liked by peers, co-workers, team members and those in my charge as mentees or assistants. It does not have to involve baked goods, lunch at a fabulous restaurant or drinks after work. It involves authenticity and carefully managing expectations.

Harvard Business School researchers Paul Green, Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats write that the paradox of honest feedback—unless masterfully delivered– is that it results in avoidance and dislike of the person who provides it.

“The idea behind performance appraisals, and feedback in general, is that to grow and improve, we must have a light shined on the things we can’t see about ourselves. We need the brutal truth. There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they’re not as good as they think they are. But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them. It may not be having the intended effect at all,” they write.

Read this related Take The Lead post on likeability and authentic feedback.

“Negative feedback manifests itself as a psychological threat. Whether it’s conscious or not, we don’t know. It’s probably a little of both, but it’s such a fundamental, deep-seated drive to want a circle of people around us that will prop us up. And we’ll go to great measures to create that circle if we have to.”

Jane Claire Hervey, creator of the production studio, Group Work, writes in Forbes, “When I noticed a problem within our operations, I pointed it out. If I thought there were areas in which we could improve, I spoke up. If I had a good idea, I gave it. But, more often than not, this feedback was met with silence and inaction, and over time I began to contribute less and less.” Eventually she quit.

But if you follow these tips, it is possible to maintain your integrity as someone who is not offering participation trophies at every turn, but someone who is forthright about feedback and a nice enough person.

It’s possible to not offer participation trophies at every turn, but to be forthright about feedback. #womenleaders

  1. Use a parfait approach: What used to be called a “compliment sandwich” is a debunked way to deliver criticism—offering a beginning and ending of praise that no one remembers anyway. Instead, offer layers of credible information not doused in emotion. This is a way to make it about facts, not feelings. Show how the “deliverables” were not met. Include comments from clients or co-workers about performance. Show numbers concerning productivity and prove the point with objective figures, not subjective impressions.

  2. Offer many avenues for feedback. Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, tells Forbes: “You can’t assume that one channel of feedback is going to work for everyone. So the more avenues to provide for people to give feedback and weigh in, the better. Some people might prefer town hall meetings, while others prefer electronic employee surveys. The richness of how you communicate–the varying formats and mediums–allows you to reach everyone.”

  3. Get to the point: Melody Whiting, a life coach who teaches human behavior at The City University of New York, writes in Quartz: “When problems go unaddressed or are swept under the rug, everyone suffers—including you. Avoiding conflict doesn’t just keep you from fulfilling your responsibilities, it also erodes your self-esteem. No one likes being the office push-over and constantly questioning yourself can take a toll on your confidence levels. A lack of constructive feedback is also detrimental to your team, depriving them of mentorship and growth opportunities. Workplaces marked by poor communication and unclear expectations are also breeding grounds for Imposter Syndrome, low trust, and disengagement.”

  4. Model the process of respectful critique: “Leaders must actively model giving and receiving feedback and encourage team members to do the same. In a recent HBR article Ron Carucci suggests that if leaders want to understand how others genuinely perceive them they should practice the following – ask teammates to push back; read non-verbal cues; ) don’t rationalize; and know your triggers and encourage others to call you out on them, according to Jack McGuiness writing in Chief Executive.

  5. Make it about the mission. Refer to the goal of the project or even mission of your organization, team or corporation. Make sure you reflect that this feedback is not personal, nor is about personality, it’s about getting to the end goal. If you want to tell a story –briefly—about difficult feedback you have received and how it helped, do that. But do not make the feedback of a team member about you.

  6. Embrace Controversy. This is Power Tool # 4 of the 9 Leadership Power Tools created by Take The Lead co-founder and president Gloria Feldt. What this means when offering critical feedback is that even if what you have to offer may be controversial, you demonstrate that you are willing to take that on in order to reach the end goal and improve the outcome. Feldt writes, “Embracing controversy gives you a platform. Nudges you to clarity. It’s your teacher, your source of strength, your friend, especially if you are trying to make a change.” This will also earn you the respect of your teammates, colleagues and fellow leaders.

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.