Guidelines for Leaders who Shrink from Straight Talk

Tips on Giving Great Employee Feedback

I have been shaped in part by uncomfortable moments of feedback, haven’t you?  I’ve had some help overcoming obstacles like procrastinating over the things I don’t enjoy and always being five minutes late because of straight talk from mentors along the way.

Last week we talked about the reluctance of leaders to offer employees helpful, authentic feedback, despite the fact that when done with care, employees will thrive.  Straight talk is one of the greatest gifts of respect you can give someone. It can save people from getting in their own way.

With so much to gain, why do leaders shrink from straight talk? 

Because even at the leadership level, the fear of hurting people’s feelings and facing drama and retribution can cause us to behave in a way that drums up more tension.  Our own nervousness causes up to tense up and over-dramatize the conversation.  We set ourselves up for a fearful response with demands like, “Come in and shut the door.  I need to talk to you.”  We create an environment of conflict.

But if we get it right, feedback can create collaboration, a culture of connection and sustainable change. 

5 Tips for Giving Employees Authentic Feedback

Leaders who aim to become more comfortable communicating with their employees, whether sharing good or not so good news, are those who do the following:

1. Be Direct, Be Kind

Being direct does not require being unkind. Making someone feel wrong, or feeling superior in some way, is off track. However, offering feedback is an opportunity for growth and can be an incentive for an employee to be more of who they are. At the same time, a direct conversation falls apart when beating around the bush. It should include specific examples of behavior to illustrate the issues.

2. Listen

Listening provides a space in which people can feel respected. Ideally a direct feedback conversation is meant to spark learning on both sides—managers and employees must understand the situation together in order to make positive change.

3. Don’t Make it Personal

Imagined slights and malice are toxic. It is easy to take things personally in a direct feedback conversation. Acknowledging the emotions being felt will offer the recipient a relief valve for any stress they might experience.

4. Show Up, Be Present

Show up, be fully present—and don’t rush off after having a tough conversation with an employee. Be brave enough to allow moments of silence to come into the conversation. Follow up afterward so that afterthoughts don’t create imagined distance and hurt feelings.

5. Inspire Greatness

Communicate the brilliance of the recipient and the aspiration for who they can become. Respectful, direct feedback restores the individual and the team to sanity. It costs absolutely nothing except an emotional investment of honesty, taking the risk of a bad reaction…and being uncomfortable.

The stakes are too high. In the absence of straight talk we become less powerful.  

Think of the moments of tough but helpful feedback that have shaped you.  What did you learn?


Difficult feedback is the topic of the third volume in the Interact Report Series, conducted in partnership with the Harris Poll. To read past reports, click below:

Interact Report Volume I:  America’s virtual workers are feeling disconnected.

Interact Report Volume II: There is a striking lack of emotional intelligence among bosses.

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Avatar for Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.