Giving the Tough Talk with Candor, Compassion, and Courage

Call it guidance, feedback, coaching, constructive criticism—the idea is the same. There are times when a leader needs to address performance problems with employees. It’s never an easy conversation to have, and for conflict-avoidant introverts, it can be excruciating. There are tons of articles that provide guidance on how to offer traditional feedback, but here are a few alternatives to consider if you want to change your communication game.

Feed it forward

Feedback traditionally focuses on things that are in the past and can’t be changed. When performed ineffectively, this “look back in regret” approach often puts the recipient on the defensive instead of opening a door to improvement. While it’s important to acknowledge and learn from past mistakes, the real power lies in looking forward to a positive change in behavior.

Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, suggests a different strategy—feedforward.  Feedforward transforms the conversation from an ordeal to a dynamic coaching session that results in measurable, attainable goals. Here’s how it works:

1. The recipient decides on one thing she needs to improve, based on what she has observed and heard from colleagues.

2. The recipient approaches a leader or peer, states what she wants to improve, then asks for advice.

3. The provider offers ideas for future improvement.

4. The recipient takes notes, listens without comment, responds to each suggestion with “thank you,” and then asks for additional ideas.

5. The recipient repeats the process with other leaders or peers until she has enough recommendations to create an action plan to effect a thoughtful change.


Are you in an industry that values Twitter as a tool? You’re in luck: the best feedback is timely, and Twitter, which enables instantaneous, succinct peer feedback, shines in this context. The longer the lag between incident and response, the less the provider and the recipient remember about the specific situation. For example, if you’ve just given a sales presentation, your colleagues can immediately share their thoughts on when you scored and when you blanked. “You did a great job overcoming their objection about cost” is a lot more useful than “Nice presentation!” And “In the future, it would be a good idea to distribute the agenda at least a day in advance” is useful, forward-looking advice everyone can use.

Since everyone in your Twitterstream can view the comments, Tweetback is a dynamic way for everyone to learn what to do and what to avoid. And that public nature of Twitter-based feedback means it needs to be handled with care. If you decide to give it a try, it’s a good idea to lay out a few ground rules: comments should be constructive, specific, actionable, and helpful. Those 144 characters need a lot of thought to make the most impact. A good guideline to keep in mind before posting is to consider whether the comment would make the recipient cringe if it were delivered face to face. If the answer is “yes,” find a more respectful way to share your thought.

The radical approach

Kim Scott, co-founder of Candor, Inc., says, “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person—in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise—and it doesn’t personalize.” Instead of dancing around the issue, you ask the recipient to face it head on, with no sugarcoating or room for misinterpretation.

Radical candor does not mean blurting out: “Nobody likes you, you’re ugly, and your mom dresses you funny.” Radical candor does mean putting the kibosh on what Kim Scott refers to as “ruinous empathy”—the tendency to be nice, spare the recipient’s feelings, and ultimately avoid saying what needs to be said.

Counterintuitively, radical candor is a feedback strategy that introverts can use to great effect. Let’s deconstruct the simple definition: first, radical candor requires that the provider care personally about the recipient so that the recipient knows the guidance is coming from a place they may trust. Introverts tend to listen more than talk, which leads to a deeper interest in and awareness of the details within other people’s lives.

Introverts also tend to think a lot before acting, weighing their words carefully to make the message as clear as possible. And all that deliberation allows the introvert to craft a proof statement that is clear, specific, fact-based, and to the point, which is the key deliverable in the second part of the definition—challenge directly. It means finding the best, most direct route to help a colleague or employee improve.

It takes courage and compassion, but the payoff is immense. Think of it this way: you can’t let it slide if you find out your new pharmaceutical sales rep went on physician calls while sporting faded jeans and a “Go ‘Bama” sweatshirt. All it takes is a quick heart-to-heart like this: “I care a lot about your success, and that success is more likely to come if you dress more formally when meeting prospective clients. Next time, wear a suit and tie. It’ll show that you respect the client and you care about the impression you’re making.” You (and the sales rep) may feel uncomfortable for about 8 seconds, but you’re probably saving his job.

Time to toss out the feedback sandwich

You know the feedback sandwich. You offer a compliment first to make the subsequent criticism slide down easier. Then you top off the criticism with another compliment. The sandwich can be effective when the compliments are sincere, but too often, this technique is transparently used to convey criticism in a way that has been deemed palatable, with ill-considered or insincere compliments sandwiching the feedback. And it turns out that when giving positive and negative feedback at the same time, many people tend to hear the good and overlook the bad.

The feedback sandwich can also cause your employees to actually fear any praise you give them (“Oh man, she said the proposal I wrote was really good. I just know there’s a ‘but’ on the horizon.”). It’s much more effective and respectful to separate praise and criticism so the recipient can celebrate or ameliorate as appropriate. Of course, this means criticism must be offered as diplomatically as possible!

How would you finish the sentence “Feedback is…”? Uncomfortable? Necessary? Difficult? Useful? All of these answers are correct (and you probably can list many, many more). But when offered with courage, compassion, and candor, feedback is a great gift you can give to your employees. And who doesn’t want a gift from time to time?