Feedback that counts means kindness and clarity

Two business women looking at a laptop together.

How feedback helps create a productive, innovative company culture

Feedback is stinking hard. We all get it. We all give it. We all need it. However, turning feedback into a conversation will help us all get better.

As a small but mighty agency, Integral often assesses (and reassesses) how we work together as a team. We are all pretty nice people, and we discovered that we sometimes have a difficult time providing timely, honest reactions.

There’s a difference between being a rude, blunt jerk and providing clear, honest, yet kind responses. But how do you know?

Jill Katz, Founder and Chief Change Officer of Assemble HR Consulting, states that, “Feedback has turned into this very heavy, very scary, very upsetting word in our culture. We need to learn to give feedback, much, much faster. And the way to do that is to build trust. And the way to build trust is to be much more frequent about giving feedback.”

Yep. What she said.

Ideally, feedback should be an ongoing process, not merely a yearly ritual. Moreover, done properly and continuously, it is a gift in service of team members that guides growth.

A gift?!!

Business thinker Dorie Clark noted in a Harvard Business Review article, “Feedback from the right people—who are informed, helpful, and have your best interests at heart—is invaluable.”

How to change your mind about feedback

In her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss without Losing Your Humanity, author Kim Scott makes the case for a feedback-driven management philosophy.

At Integral, consequently, we are finding ways to learn and use this method.

We’re reading the book asynchronously, each of us thinking about what the concepts and ideas mean to us. Then, every few weeks we meet to exchange thoughts.

I think it is sometimes hard to balance one person’s truth with another’s perception.

However, as my favorite quote from this book says, “The ultimate goal of radical candor is to achieve collaboratively what you could never achieve individually.”

So, let that goal be the foundation for shared understanding. It will help your team co-create a culture of radical candor. Collaboratively, we can build a framework for providing feedback that helps us all get better.

Radical candor is kind and clear

Radical candor, as Kim Scott defines it, happens when you put “care personally” and “challenge directly” together. This combination builds trust that helps achieve the results you’re working for as an organization.

Candid thoughts are honest and kind. It means both praise and criticism. It’s sharing observations about the work, results, and impact.

And truly, effective feedback is not the shit sandwich.

So why do so many people resort to offering a colleague vague or confusing feedback?


Sometimes feedback is hard to hear.
And sometimes, it is just as hard to give feedback.
Katz discusses the many excuses that get in the way of giving feedback.

Yes, it can be very uncomfortable to offer insights to someone who may not agree. It takes a little courage. No, sometimes it takes a lot of courage.

After all, no one wants to be perceived as a jerk.

But mixing negative feedback with positive feedback dilutes the impact of both.

Feedback is made up of insights, tools, and resources for better understanding, growth, and action. Both positive and negative. Yet separately.

Obnoxious aggression is not radical candor

Obnoxious aggression is unkind, harsh, and not actionable. Feedback does not have to be mean; it does not have to be brutal.

Kim Scott says, “If you don’t start with being kind, you’ve already failed.” Radical candor is not an excuse to be nasty, insulting, or gratuitously harsh.

Radical candor starts with caring about the person you’re providing feedback to–and understanding how hard it is sometimes to accept it.

In short, effective feedback needs to be thoughtful, compassionate, and honest. Clear, constructive feedback is a guide rail for our colleagues—and for ourselves.

Certainly, everyone deserves common human decency. Kind, clear, specific, and sincere feedback—whether praise or criticism— provides a path toward improvement.

Ruinous empathy is not radical candor

Fear of giving feedback (or avoiding giving feedback altogether) is equally unkind. It presumes that the other person is ill-equipped or not open to making changes.

Ambiguity feeds toxic niceness.

In his HBR article, The Hazards of a “Nice” Company Culture, Timothy Clark notes that a “nice” culture facade chokes innovation, bleeds talent, and creates confusion.

In a 7-year study Dr. Brené Brown conducted on leadership, she found that most of us avoid clarity. We tell ourselves we’re being kind, but what we’re actually doing is being unkind and unfair.

Clear is kind.

Toxic niceness doesn’t help people understand what they can do or stop doing to be better. And also, holding people accountable to clear expectations can be hard.

Yet, not holding people accountable is not fair to anyone.

Caring personally means giving people the information and means to do things better. It means that you watch, see, and understand how what you’re saying is impacting the person you’re hoping to guide.

And showing them, not just telling them, it’s because you care about them and want them to succeed.

It’s not mean; it’s clear.

Katz reinforces this idea, saying, “you should only give feedback from a place of good intention.” Her program and methodology is a three-legged stool of candor, courage, and care. Feedback goes off the rails if any of those three legs are missing.

Criticism can be done kindly

When you provide criticism, understand that if you hesitate to take action, you create confusion. The person might not even understand there was anything wrong.

In other words, if you don’t address a performance problem, you condone it.

However, hold people accountable in private and with respect. Humiliating someone in front of other colleagues is not kind. Or respectful.

Praise IS feedback 

Clear, specific praise shows people what to do more of, what’s valued, and what success looks like. But when you praise, it needs to be equally as clear as your criticism. 

“Great job” just doesn’t cut it. Why was it great? 

  • So, when you provide praise, what specifically are you praising and why? 
  • How will the person understand how to replicate the behavior going forward? 
  • For instance, is this person shy and not fond of the spotlight? 
  • Does this person need public attention?
Open yourself up to feedback

In a conversation with Fourblock Veteran Career Readiness, Simon Sinek discusses the power of feedback. He observes that being receptive and open is imperative to becoming better people, leaders, and professionals.

Seeing ourselves through someone else’s lens can help us see how we can improve.

It isn’t always easy to hear things about ourselves. Yet, if we can simply say “thank you” when we get it rather than becoming defensive or offering an excuse, we have an opportunity to learn.

In his Taken For Granted podcast, Adam Grant talks with Ariel Investments’ Mellody Hobson on taking tough feedback. Hobson notes that feedback “doesn’t have to be packaged for you to receive it. If we live in a society where all feedback has to be couched in some kind of terms, you won’t get people’s authentic truth.”

Make it easier for people to tell you the hard things

Roger Osorio, founder, speaker, and author of The Journey to Reinvention encourages people to ask for specific, observable feedback.

In order to get the most useful information we need to “strive for bad feedback.” He explains that we need to solicit input from subject matter experts—the people best qualified to provide actionable, thought-provoking feedback.

Osario states that inviting people to give us critical feedback might not feel good, but ultimately will help us learn and grow.

So, give people you respect permission to point out problems, he advises.

Katz concurs. She describes, “We have gotten to a place in our culture, where one of the reasons that people avoid feedback is they believe that feedback needs to come with a violin, a tablecloth, a limo, you have to be dressed and ready for it. If feedback is continuous, then it doesn’t have to be fancy and come with a bow.”

Whew! Isn’t that nice? I totally can’t play the violin.

Soliciting Feedback

Asking for feedback isn’t normalized. And also, it’s scary.

When you are aware of something you want to change, you need the help of the people around you. In a short podcast episode, Kim Scott describes a four step process for getting feedback.

  1. Have a “Go-To question” that you use.
    How are you going to ask, specifically? For example, “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” What question will seem natural and that can’t be answered with a yes/no?

  2. Embrace the discomfort.
    Understand you are putting people in an awkward place. So, after you ask, pause. Just pause. Close your mouth. Count to six, slowly. Or 10. Let the other people/person talk first.

  3. Listen with the intent to understand.
    Of course, it’s normal to feel defensive. Don’t. Do get curious, not furious. Ask a thoughtful follow-up question. Or two. Remind yourself going in that no matter how unfair the criticism you might feel it is, your first job is to listen with the intent to understand, not to defend yourself. Remember to breathe and be curious. (OMG, this is so hard!)

  4. You must reward the candor.
    It can’t look like “Thank you for the candor.” You need to be genuine. First, respond, “Let me think about how I can do this.” Then, do it. For instance, show the steps you’re taking to solve the problem. If you don’t agree, then look for the 5% or 10% you CAN agree with. Afterward, do think about it and then why you disagree. Absolutely do not just ignore what someone tells you.
Creating a culture of continuous feedback, together

Scott acknowledges that there is a hierarchical component that might make direct reports and others hold back from giving you the feedback you want or need.

Moreover, she suggests that leaders and bosses need to role model soliciting and accepting feedback. I agree. As a “not-quite-a-boss” person, I take my lead from our leadership team.

Continuous feedback means that as soon after something happens that warrants either praise or criticism, the better.

Providing feedback that is clear, specific, and actionable helps to create a culture where kindness and clarity thrive.

Effective feedback is a two-way dialogue loop. It is specific, kind, compassionate, and timely.

Feedback, both positive and negative, helps people learn and improve. It can provide focus and motivation.

Whether it’s feedback for one-time situations or on an ongoing basis, develop a framework for providing and normalizing these discussions and exchanges.

Above all, rather than waiting for that formal one or two times a year, co-create use of continuous feedback to help transform your culture, improve collaboration, and increase effectiveness.