Never Ask For “Feedback” (or Give It)

Karissa Thacker, Founder & President, Strategic Performance Solutions Inc.

Never Ask For “Feedback” (or Give It)

Feedback has become the new f word in the workplace. It is starting to make people more uncomfortable than the other f word that you probably thought of. Delete the word “feedback” from your workplace vocabulary now. I will offer up some useful phrases that might actually promote productive, honest conversations. Here is the problem with the f word.

It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon and my client, Rebecca, calls me, frantic. Rebecca and her boss, the CEO, disagreed in a noon meeting about how to handle a customer. No shouting, just disagreement and resolution to go in the direction Rebecca suggested. Boss sends Rebecca an email at 1:38 pm that says "Stop by my office on your way out today. I have some feedback for you." There it is, the f word via email, which led to another f word--the frantic state.

Rebecca has been working for 15 years in a professional sales role. In that 15 years she has never had an experience of premeditated feedback that has been good. She tells me about the time she got feedback saying that she talked too much. Another time, she got feedback saying that her emails were too terse. Early in her career, she got feedback saying that she should dress more professionally. (That feedback chalked up a big credit card charge at Nordstrom.)

Despite all the “feedback,” Rebecca has had a very successful career, made more money every year, and been promoted almost every other year. At the ripe old age of 41 she finds herself as the head of sales at a multi-national corporation.

Rebecca is not alone in her traumatic history with premeditated feedback. Too often, giving and receiving “feedback” has turned into an event as weighty as receiving your SAT scores. Positive or negative, a feedback event feels like a big deal.

What’s the alternative? Honest conversations in real time. Honest dialogue about what’s working or not should not feel like a big deal and are a much better way to go. 

Just to clarify, honest conversations are not about unloading without any sensitivity to the other person. That’s not honesty. That’s insensitivity or at worst, meanness. That kind of radical honesty doesn’t get results and makes the workplace climate unsafe. It inhibits the kinds of respectful relationships that promote honest conversation as a norm in the workplace.

Honest conversations are about saying what you think, positive or negative, with heartfelt respect for the other person and a clear understanding of the business situation. Honest conversations are not normal in today's workplace. They only become normal when leaders intentionally cultivate honest conversations in practical ways.

Here’s what you must to do to move from premeditated feedback to honest conversations:

1. Find questions that work for you and use them THROUGHOUT the whole day. Here are some examples: What suggestions do you have? What are your thoughts? Is this making sense? What am I missing? What can I do to help? How is this going from your point of view?

Why: You are signaling your audience that you are interested in what they are really thinking and feeling by consistently asking. We humans are tribal. Most of us will respond with reciprocity and start asking questions in return.

2. If you have something to say to a colleague that is threatening or negative, never use email. Pick up the phone or engage your legs and walk to their office. We all say things in email that we would never say in person or on the phone. Find your courage and speak to the person directly and sincerely.

Why: This one comes back to the golden rule. Are you most likely to feel that someone is genuinely trying to be helpful if they speak to you on the phone or via email? One of my clients recently said, “In person is best.” I agree. However, in person is not always practical or timely. But the phone is.

3. Discuss your impressions as soon as possible. Make it a habit to be open with your impressions and thoughts. If someone did a great job in a meeting, tell them immediately. If someone makes you really mad, talk to them about it as soon as you simmer down emotionally and can have perspective. Half a day is usually enough to cool down. A week is too long. You do not want to be firing off emotionally and being harmful, but you don't want the intensity of your reaction to be totally lost either.

Why: You are modeling honest dialogue on a daily basis. Over time, honest dialogue becomes part of the routine as opposed to a special event. By actively jumping in and saying what you think and feel, you send the message that ongoing honest dialogue is important to you.

Wondering how Rebecca's appointment with her boss went? She walked into his office and he said, “Thanks for pushing back in the meeting today.” That was his feedback! Rebecca asked him to just say that to her face immediately next time. She told him how the email had caused her to assume the worst. Wouldn't anyone? Come to find out, he had sent the email because he did not want to forget to say thanks face to face. He was working on acknowledging the strengths of others. I bet he will pick up the phone next time, or better yet, just tell her right after the meeting. Cheers to the power of an honest conversation!

About the Author

Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction.  She is the author of The Art of Authenticity:  Tools To Become An Authentic Leader And Your Best Self (Wiley).  For more information visit