Even when the intentions are good, sharing critical feedback with a manager or peer puts your relationship—or maybe even your job—at risk.
A study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, coauthors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High and founders of the corporate training firm VitalSmarts, found that 83% of employees have witnessed their colleagues say something that has had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations, and businesses. The most common offense: "suicide by feedback."
- 31% said it cost them a pay increase, a promotion, or their job.
- 27% said it undercut or destroyed the working relationship.
- 11% said it destroyed their reputation.
"Humans are hardwired for self protection," says Maxfield. "We’re always assuming that rustling noise in the bushes is a snake. We’re social animals, but we’re always wondering if the other person intends harm."
If you have constructive feedback to offer, how do you avoid a "pink slip of the tongue"?
The first thing we decide when we encounter someone is if they are friend or foe, and the second thing we look for is if they’re competent or incompetent, says Maxfield. "If they are a foe and competent, we judge their motives or assume they are masking them," he says.
Maxfield shares an example of an employee who felt her boss wasn’t being supportive enough. In a project team meeting she remarked: "Honestly, the lack of support on this project is exhausting, I don’t think expectations are realistic."
"She didn’t realize it but what made her comment worse was that her boss’s boss from corporate was in the room," says Maxfield. "Her statement turned out to be career limiting; her boss never forgave her."
The employee’s feedback caused her manager to see her as a foe. "Friends give friends feedback; that is what makes us friends," he says. "The context of this example—doing it in public—made her feedback seem like an attack, and she came across as a foe."
Instead, the employee should have voiced her concerns in private or made it clear that her intention was to make sure the project was successful, then asked permission to share her perspective, says Maxfield.
"We call it ‘salute the flag;’ show respect for person, role, and point of view," he says. "It reminds the other person that you serve under same flag. If you salute before giving feedback, you’ll be seen as a friend."
If you’ve given feedback that wasn’t well received, you need to apologize, but with a caveat, say Maxfield. "The bandage has to be larger than the wound you caused," he says. "The way you make bandage bigger is through self-sacrifice—sacrifice your time, ego, money, and other priorities."
Maxfield shares the story of a senior leader who was on a conference call with the directors of the company. "She thought she had pushed the mute button, and said to someone sitting next to her, ‘Can you believe these people are directors?’" he says. "Unfortunately, everyone heard her comment, and the wound was big."
Since she had let her authentic feelings known, she had to apologize in a large way. "If you screw up in public, apologize in public," says Maxfield. "She got on an airplane and met with each director, sacrificing ego, time, and money."
What if you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback, especially if you feel it’s unfair? The responsibility runs both ways, and Maxfield says it’s important to address it. "Too often we stay silent but condemn them," he says. "Instead, have a frank honest confrontation so you give the person a chance to repair the mistake or look for another job."
We all screw up, and put our foot in our mouth, says Maxfield. "The common mistake is to ignore the feedback and hope it goes away," he says. "Silence is not golden; silence is agreement. When you don’t say anything it’s like you agree with what the person said."