Giving feedback isn’t mean. But it is an art.

Nisha Chittal has managed teams and strategies at places like NBC News, MSNBC, Vox Media and Travel Channel. She was named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in Media in 2016 and participated in ONA’s Women’s Leadership Accelerator in 2018. She also volunteers as a mentor on DigitalWomenLeaders.com.

This column was originally published in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation by subscribing here.


The first time I had to give someone I managed negative feedback, I dreaded the conversation for days. My direct report was smart and talented, and she was great at her job. But no one is perfect, and I still had feedback to give her on areas where she could improve. As a generally conflict-averse person, I was terrified to tell her that the copy she was writing for one of our publication’s social media accounts was too casual and needed to tie back to our actual reporting more. I was worried she might react with negativity and defensiveness.

Learning how to deal with feedback — both giving it and taking it — is one of the most critical skills for growth and success in any career. Yet it’s also among the most anxiety-inducing things we do at work. I’ve spent many hours before meetings ruminating about what I would say and how the person would react.

Giving feedback is tough for anyone, but as women leaders, we also face extra pressure to be likable. Numerous studies have shown that for women leaders, success and likeability are inversely related — putting pressure on women to balance the fine line between being the boss and being liked. And I know from personal experience, and from talking to other women in the Cohort, that sometimes we avoid giving feedback because we want to be nice.

This is a mistake.

My approach to feedback changed dramatically a couple years ago when I read the book “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.” Author Kim Scott spent years as a manager at Google and Apple, and developed a unique approach to management that she argues increases trust, happiness and productivity in the workplace. Radical Candor completely reframed how I think about feedback and management.

The core philosophy of radical candor is that giving feedback isn’t mean. You give candid, direct feedback because you care about the other person.

Scott describes the two dimensions of radical candor: caring personally, and challenging directly. If you’ve established that you care about the person, giving feedback is part of that — because you care about helping that person grow, improve and succeed in his or her career.

Since I read this book, I’ve thought a lot about how to deliver feedback. When to do it, how to do it, and how to do it gently but clearly. I’ve agonized about what will happen — what if the person gets angry or defensive and refuses to take feedback? What will I do then? In talking to other Cohort members, I realized I’m far from alone in spending a lot of time thinking about this topic.

So here are some of my favorite lessons — and tips from other Cohort alumni, too.

 

Be direct. And don’t do the ‘sandwich.’

About five years ago, I had been recently promoted on the social team at MSNBC and was a brand-new manager. I attended a company-organized leadership training on delivering impactful feedback. The facilitator opened the session by asking people how they deliver feedback. I, thinking I’d be a good participator, raised my hand and offered up the sandwich technique that I had probably read about in some business article years ago: you give the person praise, followed by the critical feedback and then followed up again by more praise.

The facilitator immediately explained to me why that was wrong, in front of everyone else in the session (guess that’s what I get for raising my hand!). I was embarrassed at the time, but I learned an important lesson. The “sandwich” technique has been popularized in the past, but Scott points out in her book that this technique can be confusing and misleading for the recipient.

Scott writes: “The notion of a ‘right’ ratio between praise and criticism is dangerous, because it can lead you to say things that are unnatural, insincere, or just plain ridiculous… Patronizing or insincere praise like that will erode trust and hurt your relationships just as much as overly harsh criticism.”

Versha Sharma, managing editor at NowThis News, told me how she used to try a similar sandwich technique, and has worked to move away from it: “I can find myself trying to couch constructive criticism with a lot of praise out of fear of upsetting the employee, especially if it’s a male employee, but I remind myself: I’m the manager, and I’m trying to help them produce the best work possible. All I need to do is speak confidently and be honest.”

 

Be the queen of receiving feedback yourself

But Scott’s philosophy isn’t just about managers giving more feedback to those they manage: The first step to establishing a culture of trust and radical candor is being willing to take criticism. As the boss, you’re not exempt; managers get things wrong all the time, too.

Scott recommends regularly asking your team for feedback, especially criticism. Ask for it, and then listen, thank them for their candor, and don’t get defensive. If you’re willing to take criticism, your team will feel they’re able to be more candid and open with you — and that will lead to better results overall.

Taking feedback well isn’t always easy, but being able to listen and learn from it is critical to success.

Kim Bui, the director of audience innovation at The Arizona Republic, told me:  “I am working on my reaction, facially, and my body language. Part of being a higher manager is also the optics of how things are generally going so if people see that I’m stomping around or angry, that makes it harder to build relationships. I try to keep a straight face and stay quiet, generally thinking over what I want to say well before I say it. This helps me be less defensive or emotional about things I should not be. There are, of course, times when the behavior is so bad I can’t but help it, but I want to make that a rare occurrence.”

Bui is right that staying poised when receiving feedback is even more important when you’re a manager — your team is watching how you react. One of my favorite tools for staying cool in any kind of stressful or emotional situation is practicing controlled breathing, an easy breathing exercise that actually calms your nervous system.  

 

Documentation doubles the impact of your feedback

Several of the Cohort alumni I spoke to said that one of their best tips is to document feedback. This helps make sure both parties are on the same page, and it sets up an easy way to keep track of and measure your progress.

Jareen Imam, the director of social newsgathering at NBC News, said: “As a manager, whenever I provide critical feedback, I like to be very specific and afterward I follow up in an email about that conversation with my employee. I found that by documenting my feedback with others, it holds me and my direct reports accountable. And if we have issues in the future, we can go back to these notes for help and guidance.”

And this goes both ways, Imam said: “Likewise, if I receive feedback from my manager, I like to circle back via email and let them know I acknowledge their feedback and will keep it in mind for the future.”

Sharma agreed: “Documentation is the best way to measure actual progress. And if you do have in-person meetings or video calls, a follow-up email is a great way for them to easily reference your feedback, and for you to remember what you’ve clearly communicated to them as well.”

 

Give feedback regularly and immediately

Another key lesson I learned from Radical Candor? Don’t save up your feedback for your weekly one-on-ones (you are having weekly one-on-ones, right?) or even worse — annual performance reviews.

This is something I was guilty of with that same direct report I mentioned at the beginning of this column. I worried she would get defensive and I wanted to avoid having multiple, separate tough conversations. As I noticed things I wanted to give feedback on throughout the week, I’d make a mental note of it and then plan to address them in our next weekly one-on-one.

Of course, by that time, the actual moment was far away, and it was harder to remember the details, thus making it harder to be clear and specific in my guidance. It also started making those conversations feel like a chore, one that I got anxious about each week. Over time, I’ve tried to get better at giving feedback right away, and quickly, as Scott suggests.

“If you wait too long to give guidance, everything about it gets harder,” Scott writes. “Just saying it right away in a minute or two, three at most, will take less time than scheduling a meeting for later.”

In short, there’s no need to be precious about feedback. Make it a part of your everyday management style.

Feedback should be something you do often enough that by the time performance reviews roll around, nothing you say should be a complete surprise to that person. Those formal reviews, Scott wrote, “are meant to reinforce, not substitute, what we do every day.”

 

Feedback is an art — one that we can always practice

I’ve been a manager for almost five years now, and one of the things I’ve learned about management is that no one has it all figured out — bosses included. Management has a steep learning curve, and getting it right takes practice. There is always room to get better at managing and giving feedback, no matter how many years of experience you have.

But it can also be a joy! One of my proudest moments as a manager was watching an intern I hired at NBC learn the ropes and eventually get hired full-time after she graduated college. At another job, I watched a direct report significantly improve her writing skills after lots of feedback and coaching. Those moments, for me, are the most gratifying parts of being a manager — and they’re a good example of why feedback is so crucial for success.

Giving feedback is an art that you can get better at with practice, but it will probably always be complicated and fraught, no matter what stage of your career you might be in. If you’re conflict-averse like I am, it can be challenging to have tough conversations with your team, even when you know they’re necessary.

But when you have a culture of radical candor, everyone benefits. When people feel comfortable being open and honest at work, and when they feel comfortable challenging their manager or telling them when they might be wrong, the team is happier, and the collective results are better.

 


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