People are funny. We reason with ourselves that we want the truth, but we prove time and again that we prefer being lied to. If your gut reaction to that statement is defiance, there is a strong chance that you’re lying to yourself about your own emotions.
This article isn’t about the psychology of our rational versus emotional processing, but I mention it because we must be aware of this as we set out to provide and receive honest evaluations between ourselves, our team members, and business partners.
The Goal of Truthful Feedback
If you have received leadership training on giving feedback, or read articles on how to deliver criticism, then you’ve no doubt heard about the “sandwich method.” The idea is to give positive feedback at the beginning of a conversation, then provide your constructive criticism, and then end on a positive note again. It’s a fine method and often, if you use this delivery approach, the recipient ends up feeling better about the interaction. The goal is to deliver honest evaluations and to have the recipient appreciate the change they are being asked to make.
In a case where corrective measures need to be taken, my rational mind complains about the wastefulness of the approach. With the sandwich method, I must provide two-thirds of my message in a positive way, while the honest evaluation I need to provide is an outsized concern that needs to be addressed. My empathetic mind, on the other hand, appreciates that I don’t meet my goal if I sidetrack the recipient and put them in a poor state of mind.
In other cases, the feedback isn’t a must-fix problem but rather has the goal of continual improvement, career advancement, or mentorship. The delivery of information like this needs to ensure that the recipient is ready and willing to receive it. Our minds hear constructive criticism the same way we hear harsh criticism, even if it wasn’t intended or delivered that way. In these cases, the sandwich method works well to drive home the “everything is great” message and to transition it into, “here’s where we can make it even better.”
There is a spectrum of corporate culture, and as years pass the average shifts back and forth from one side to the other. Many of the dozens of companies I’ve worked closely with have shown me that being constantly positive is the current expectation in many corporate cultures – at least in the U.S.
I’ve witnessed the “Sacred Cows” that team members aren’t allowed to say anything bad about. I’ve been present when teams choose not to discuss the “Elephant in the Room” – avoiding the most important conversation for easier ones. These are two areas where positivity can become toxic.
I once had a department head who aimed to build a solid culture. He introduced the “gift” method of feedback, where we should welcome honest evaluations. They encouraged us to use the phrase “Can I give you a gift?” However, the approach didn’t stick beyond the first week. People were uncomfortable with it, and the entrenched old culture prevailed. Ironically, the same department head criticized me for mentioning a rough start to a project when discussing it with board members. He wanted honesty but couldn’t bridge the gap when communicating upward, hindering the goal of an open culture.
I started my career in graphic design. Through art school critiques and client presentations, I quickly gained a thick skin for criticism. Most of the feedback was given in a constructive way, but not all of it. As a designer, you end up having to redo, reformat, and rethink – spending hours, days, and weeks to change something just because the highest-paid person in the room has an opinion. It is what it is. You take the feedback with a smile, you adjust, and in the end, you still have a successful result.
I know I’m in the minority who thrives on constructive criticism and honest evaluations, but I really learned to love it. In fact, I get a little awkward when I receive kudos with no suggestion on improvement. A pat on the back is fine, but constructive criticism is where I learn to get better. And I’m nothing if not a continuous improvement guy. I’m a lifetime learner, for sure. For my very first professional performance review I was given a perfect rating on their scale. I was young at the time and flattered – I thought that was cool. Now that I’m older and wiser, I look back at that review and think, “Thanks for nothing!”
When giving feedback, I try very hard to make sure all criticism is constructive for the recipient. I also attempt to ensure that the criticism is not directly pointed at them, but rather at the situation, the project, or the process. If phrased correctly, you can deliver feedback in a way that becomes a joint effort of, “How can we improve this together?” People love to be part of a solution!
Lastly, I want to touch on the gut-wrenching anxiety that evaluations have on people. You’ve probably been there. Maybe you have an annual review with your manager, and your mind drifts to the what-ifs, knowing that people remember the bad things more than the good things. Or maybe it’s an ad hoc meeting where you get a message from your boss that simply reads, “Come see me as soon as you can.” And in those moments before you go in, you need to compose yourself and brace for the worst-case scenario with which your brain is running wild.
In my experience, the only solution to this is to find the groove of honest evaluations with your direct reports to ensure that feedback, both good and bad, are handled in real time. If you are holding on to your feedback because they have an annual review next month, then you are doing it wrong. While it’s fresh, talk about it now. The one exception to this rule is if you are angry…you should probably sleep on it, count to ten, and approach it with a level head. Be intentional with all aspects.
I try to do real-time feedback, with monthly or twice-a-month check-ins with no agenda. This handles the recency factor, and the check-ins allow a proper forum for them to bring up something on their mind too. The company can still have quarterly or annual reviews for the sake of career goal management. The thing is, if the infrequent formal review provides a surprise to the recipient, then you know you haven’t done a good job on your real-time feedback and check-ins. There should be no unwanted surprises going into the formal review.
Whether you are a people manager or an individual contributor trying to improve the team, the advice above on honest evaluations should help smooth out the delivery of constructive criticism while also strengthening your relationship with the other person. Make sure you understand that the goal is to grow not to tear down. Be aware that if all you have are positive things to say, that you aren’t truly helping elevate. And of course, don’t lose sight of how negative feedback should never, EVER, be a delayed surprise.
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