When I was 27, I took on my first managerial role at Coke. Some aspects of the job came more naturally to me than others. As someone who values kindness, I had a lot of empathy for my team members. This made me a good mentor and sounding board, but it made giving critical feedback difficult. Here’s how I learned to find the right balance.
Constructive Yet Kind
I grasped right away how hard it would be for my team members to hear critiques, and when I put myself in their shoes, I couldn’t bear the thought of making them feel bad. Taking a negative tone just didn’t come naturally to me; I was much better at being the good cop. But I knew I couldn’t let that stand in the way of being an effective manager. The last thing I wanted was to be seen as a pushover. I was frankly stumped and worried that I would be seen as overly harsh or too mean if I gave my team straightforward feedback. I felt frozen, until circumstances compelled me to act.
A financial analyst on my team–let’s call her Kira–was proving to be a weak link. She was very effective at financial reporting; I could count on her for accurate spreadsheets, charts, and tables that communicated the financial position of the company. The problem was, she never submitted the report on time–and her explanation of the financial results was often poorly written.
I avoided giving Kira direct feedback for four whole months. Instead, I rewrote all of her copy, and when Kira inevitably sent me the numbers at the very last minute, I pulled all-nighters to get the cleaned-up reports to my boss on time. I knew this approach was not sustainable. I needed to give Kira real constructive feedback, but I didn’t know how to do it in a kind way that felt authentic to me.
When I told my boss about the bind I felt I was in, he told me that I was doing Kira a disservice by cleaning up her work rather than being direct with her. He urged me to address the issue head-on, suggesting that maybe the reason Kira struggled to send the reports on time was because she was getting stuck on the writing. He recommended that I start my conversation with her by addressing the missed deadlines and see if the writing challenges come up naturally.
I thought back to the feedback I’d gotten from bosses throughout my career and how their different approaches had made me feel. Two experiences came to mind right away. One boss launched into negative feedback during my performance. Yet, she did a good job of clearly communicating what needed to change and pointing to specific examples. I left that meeting feeling a bit deflated, but I knew exactly what I needed to do to improve.
Another boss started my performance review by telling me how much she valued me. She asked me questions, and didn’t rush through the meeting. This conversation felt like much more of a dialogue. Yet I left feeling as though she hadn’t really pinpointed any areas for potential growth. It was a pleasant conversation, but it wasn’t constructive.
It dawned on me that I could combine these two approaches. If I gave Kira feedback that was nice and direct, it would feel natural to me and hopefully help her improve her performance without crushing her spirit. It was a matter of giving her feedback in an empathetic and supportive way, by presenting it as helpful advice rather than as a harsh critique. This new mind-set allowed me to give feedback while drawing on the skills like empathy and compassion that felt authentic to me.
Feedback Isn’t A Burden, It’s A Gift
This approach made it much easier to have that daunting conversation with Kira. I began with the positive, which was that she was doing a great job on the numbers. Then I moved on to the missed deadlines. I told her that, in order to be helpful to her, I wanted to understand what was driving the late behavior. However, I also let her know that by consistently missing deadlines, she was creating a burden for the team.
As soon as I brought it up, Kira seemed relieved. My kindly worded feedback gave her an opening to admit that she didn’t enjoy the writing part of the report. She told me that while she always had the numbers prepared well in advance, she struggled to get through the commentary. We spoke about whether her writing was something that she wanted to work on improving, or if she wanted to transition to a quantitative-only role, where she could create the most value for the company and for herself.
The conversation ended up being a huge relief for both of us. And it completely changed the way I thought about providing tough feedback. I now see feedback as almost a kind of gift to the other person. It’s also a gift to myself as a manager. If I hadn’t spoken to Kira when I did, I probably would have spent months redoing her work and holding it against her. It was much better for both of us to have that conversation. Most importantly, by learning that even negative feedback can be approached with a real sense of empathy, I was able to leverage my authentic kindness in a way that was productive for my team and for me.
This article is adapted from The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate by Fran Hauser. It is reprinted with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.