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The Road Less Raveled

Shoot_messengerRecently, I was asked to provide feedback on somebody's performance.  To be honest, I've really been struggling with the issue of how brutally candid I want to be with my answers.  I generally tend to avoid out-and-out malice when providing feedback; after all, the word "feedback" implies that there is some mental or emotional nourishment to the recipient.  So... why the hesitancy?

We've all heard of the phrase "shoot the messenger," and it conjures the image of the Vesuvius manager waiting to erupt at the first sign of bad news.  However, like the game of Clue, there are multiple ways to injure a messenger of feedback, which in turn shuts him or her down.  See if any of these sound familiar:

  • Naked Emperor - This person can see no wrong in him/herself, so if you see it, you must be an inferior being.  If the Naked Emperor wants feedback, she or he is asking for ego strokes in disguise.
  • Excuses, Excuses - This person begins coming up with all of the reasons why he or she is to be exonerated for the negative feedback.  The root cause of the problem is a lack of accountability; the excuse-monger may want feedback about everyone and everything else.
  • Forty Lashes - When hearing any negative feedback about himself, this person automatically starts telling you everything that you've done wrong.  Similar to the Excuses person above, the negativity is directed at you as the deliverer of feedback.  Lashing out at the messenger completely changes the scope of the feedback session.
  • Passive Aggression - Similar to the Lasher above, this person will smile and nod while you are providing the feedback, only to lash out at you... later... in unpleasant ways... when you least expect it.
  • Apathy - These peoplen may not even care what you have to say.  It may be due to their perception of you, or it may be that they just don't think that changing is a high priority on their list.
  • Shields Up, Captain - This person becomes defensive at the first sign of negative feedback and will shut you down.  The reasons may relate to any of the other five, but it tends to be a general shutdown of receiving feedback.  Behaviors include a glazed expression or multi-tasking so they don't have to listen.

So, what do you do when you are asked to provide feedback to somebody or feel compelled to provide feedback?  There are a couple of tricks and tips:

  • Determine the receptiveness - has this person historically been receptive of feedback?  If not, then anything you say or do might fall on deaf ears or get you in greater trouble
  • Is the timing good - if this person is having a bad day, kicking the horse out from under them while they already have the noose around their neck is generally not a good strategy
  • Fitness for use - if they've asked you for feedback, ask them why and what your feedback will be used for.  I've occasionally asked how candid they want me to be with my feedback in a humorous way:  "Do you want to be lightly toasted or extra crispy when I'm done with you?"
  • Document, Document, Document - have your feedback in writing while you are delivering it to them.  Follow up with an email to recap.  When it comes to feedback, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished.

On my recent situation, I chose to pass on providing completely candid feedback.  I also chose my words very carefully, so I wasn't lying to the person, but I also wasn't being as candid as I would have liked.  The person asking me for feedback has a solid reputation as a passive aggressive naked emperor; hence, anything negative would have hurt me in the long run more than anything.

I'll happily give feedback to people when I know they will use it.  I've had to deliver very difficult messages to individuals, telling executives that their projects are failing, that they have a poor reputation among their staff, and that they are just generally heading down an incorrect path.  However, delivering those difficult messages is easier knowing the person operates with a healthy ego intact, and that the feedback will be used for good rather than evil.

NOTE:  My apologies to Robert Frost fans for the post title.  Please don't provide me feedback.  :)


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Hunter Arnold

All great points. I'd especially echo the "timing, timing" tip, and even add to that - is the timing good for you as the person giving the feedback? You don't want your feedback to misinterpreted because of your mood, the time (or lack thereof) you devoted to the conversation, or any other variable. Make sure you're in a comfortable position to get your point across effectively.

Timothy Johnson

Excellent point, Hunter. If the timing isn't good for you as the giver of feedback, then it may be best to wait until you're in a "better place" to provide that.

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