Management A valuable social transaction

Say the Hard Thing

The majority of people-related disasters I’ve created originate with my choice to not say the hard thing. On my short list of critical leadership skills, the ability to “say the hard thing” is right after “delegate until it hurts.”

I didn’t give feedback when behavior was off because the person was new and I told myself, “Give them time to adjust. They’re new.” A month later and the unchecked behavior has grown (because I hadn’t said anything) and I didn’t give feedback again because, ya’know, in a month we’re doing formal feedback so I’ll just give it then, right?

The difficulty with saying the hard thing is you know how it will feel to hear the hard thing. You’re projecting yourself into the mind of the receiver and literally feeling their reaction. Thank you for being an empathic leader. However, your job, the work you should value the most, is the growth of your team. Compliments and recognition are one way to highlight exceptional work but saying the hard thing always gets their attention.

The Voice in Your Head

There’s a constant voice in your head. That voice is saying each of the words you read here right now. You have mapped this voice to what you consider the Rands voice to be, but it’s not the Rands’ voice. It is what you want the Rands voice to sound like and it’s entirely your creation.

Hi. You’re awesome.

This voice works in your favor. It translates everything you experience into digestible constructs that you can understand and it often biases these constructs towards your hopes and dreams. It is optimistic. This is well researched and normal. We are all the heroes of own story. This voice tells the story of the world from your perspective – passed through the sum total of your experiences, translated into information, morphed into judgment, and often resulting in the creation of incremental wisdom.

This voice is often wrong or just misinformed especially when you fail.

You’re embarrassed or ashamed when you fail. Maybe you’re mad, but after the initial emotion churn passes, you protectively rationalize. You find a narrative from the failure that is acceptable to what you currently know. What did you learn? How will you proceed? What story will you tell others about this failure? All of this is defined by how you process your failure.

You are missing critical data when all you consult is yourself. It’s not that your inner dialog has a devious plan to prevent you from learning, it’s that it’s operating with an incomplete and biased set of data. The humans around, watching you act, have both the context and the experience to tell you important observations about both your successes and failures.

We exacerbate the problem because we don’t want to say the hard thing because we have the same voice in our head telling them, “It would be hard for me to hear this, so I don’t want to say it.” Worse, in the manager/employee relationship, the historic professional incentives are designed to prevent saying the hard thing. Your voice cautiously advises you, “She writes your review. She sets your compensation. You can not tell her that. She will be mad.”

Let’s fix this. There are two practices: Learning to say the hard thing followed by actively hearing the hard thing.

Saying the Hard Thing

A good place to start practicing feedback is with new employees. Once we’re past the getting to know phase of a working relationship, a month or two in, I start giving feedback. I start with lightweight feedback (“In this meeting, you said this thing. Is this what you meant to say?”) and at the end of each 1:1, I ask the same question, “Do you have any feedback for me?”

They never do. That’s ok. It can take months. It took a former CEO a year before they took me up on my incessant feedback request. Feedback is about building trust and we humans are extremely slow to trust. It’s cool. Take your time. I am patient because I understand what is at stake. It’s the health of our working relationship.

Each 1:1, I keep providing feedback (“During that presentation for your team, you were acting this way. Is this what you were meaning to portray?”). Same drill as before, I ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” Finally, weeks after I’ve given them the opportunity, they realize I’m not going to stop asking so they give me feedback and it’s a test because they want to see how I am going to react.

“You weren’t prepared for that all hands.”

I wasn’t.

Hearing the Hard Thing

The first time someone gives you critical feedback, it’s a test for everyone involved. The sender is taking a risk because you’re the boss and the sender has seen prior bosses lose their shit when they’ve received feedback. Now, hopefully for well-intentioned reasons, they are now giving this gift to you – the receiver – with the hope it is useful.1

There are three classes of feedback: No Big Deal, Slow Burn, and Just Plain Hard.

No Big Deal feedback is no big deal. You hear it, you accept it, you update your priors, and you move along with your slightly altered worldview. Your goal in life is to make all feedback in all directions no big deal. This is hard.

Slow Burn feedback feels like No Big Deal until you’re driving home from work and realize there is unexpected depth to the feedback. There is critical feedback in what felt easy to understand and with time you realize it’s…

Just Plain Hard feedback. In many cases, I can tell when hard feedback is about to arrive. There could be sudden change in the tone of the conversation, it’s a one-off meeting that doesn’t normally happen, or it’s simply a strange new expression. Whatever the leading indicator, my brain quickly predicts a complex moment arriving and moves into high alert mode. I am literally preparing for hand to hand combat in my head.

Hard feedback, critical feedback, is distilled truth.2 In days and weeks full of vapid “How ya doing?”, “Great jobs”, 👍, and high fives, hard feedback represents a rarely seen report on the state of your ability. When the feedback is hard, there is another two-step process for making sure you don’t miss anything.

Step 1: No matter how critical the feedback, listen for just a glimpse of understanding. Why only a glimpse? I’m glad you asked.

Remember. Brain. High alert. You’re going to instinctively want to respond, to react, to do something to protect yourself from the fight, but at this point, you don’t actually know how to react. You haven’t unpacked the feedback, so most reactions are emotional and pointless. You must listen to each word and seek a neutral understanding even with the hard feedback pointed directly at your face.


The yelling is your brain defending its poorly informed reality, but the yelling distracts you from hearing anything. It has taken years, but the moment I hear the beginning of hard feedback, I adopt the position: crossed legs, folded hands, and head slightly tilted. This is my “I am listening” position. It reminds me to listen.

Listen for what? One simple insight. One realization. Here’s one example, “Why are they choosing to give me this feedback right now?” The trick is to engage your rational brain, the part of your brain that likes to solve problems versus the part that wants to scream because the part of your brain that wants to scream is exceptional at demonstrating tremendously poor judgment.

Sometimes the feedback shocks you so much that understanding is impossible which is leads us to our second step.

Step 2: Repeat what you heard.

You will be shocked by the usefulness of this simple advice. See, even if you achieve pure listening zen prescribed in Step 1, you are still building your version of the narrative regarding what they are saying and when the feedback is shocking, your narrative is somewhere between slightly to completely wrong. So, repeat what you heard. This both clarifies and acknowledges the feedback.

Me: “Just so I’m clear what you’re saying, you’re saying that I didn’t perform well at the all hands?”

Them: “No, I didn’t say that. You’re a delight to watch speak, but you weren’t prepared. The narrative didn’t hold up and I think you think being eloquent is making up for the fact that your thesis wasn’t sound.”

Me: Oh.

Your Goal in Life

Your goal in life is to make feedback in all directions no big deal. You and your team never start in this state, they earn it. They start with small spoken observations that slowly turn into more useful feedback. They watch to see if each other are listening to the feedback and eventually acting on it.3 Once everyone has seen that feedback is both shared and acted on, they begin to feel more comfortable sharing large, more complex, and harder feedback. Why? Trust.

Feedback is an incredibly valuable social transaction. They take their time to observe an aspect of you. They have other things to do, but today they are investing in you. You think you’ve got it all figured out, but you don’t. You take the time to both clearly hear the feedback, ask clarifying questions, and hopefully adjust the way you work.

All the constituent parts of the act of giving and receiving feedback is an opportunity to build trust in a relationship.

  1. It always is. Even if it’s misinformed or outright untrue, it’s useful. 
  2. Ok, sometimes it’s a complete lie, but the fact that this person is choosing to tell you this lie is interesting information all by itself. 
  3. I’ve left the hardest part of this practice out: the processing and, if appropriate, acting on the feedback in a timely fashion. Sorry. That’s another article. 

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16 Responses

  1. whatever we find difficult, there must be a way out

  2. I can’t help but feel that if I gave someone critical feedback and their first reaction was to take up a visually defensive posture and repeat my “accusation” back to them, my next move would be to seriously undermine the point of the exercise by attempting to walk back what I’d said as much as possible. More so if that person was in a position of authority relative to me

    Not sure that your listening posture is ideal here, and you do seem to indicate that it’s for your benefit, not theirs.

    (You may consider this NoBigDeal feedback)

  3. Tsk, proofreading. “…back to *me*

  4. Walter Davis 6 years ago

    One more nit-pick (you already fixed one I saw in the RSS): `Your embarrassed` should be `You’re embarrassed’. Great article. Hard to live up to, but we’re all a work in progress.

  5. Nazila Alasti 6 years ago

    Wow! Really good management advice. Thank you. Your teams are lucky to have you. Question: have you ever fired anyone? And if yes, what was the process of feedback giving and receiving until you realized that things are not working out?

  6. Excellent article. Thank you.

  7. The Blogroll: Week 13 | DN Aggregator linked to this.
  8. Patipan 6 years ago

    Good advice.
    The presentation attracts the reader. It drawn me from the start to this comment box.
    I need a neutral mind to deal with feedbacks, both to & from me!

  9. Mario 6 years ago

    One thing that makes your team members give you feedback quicker: Admit your flaws and mistakes in front of them.

    If you notice a situation when you did something wrong, talk to them afterwards. Ask them for feedback on the situation. If they don’t give it to you, give it yourself. Show them you’re not afraid of feedback.

    Always works for me.

  10. Leslie Yang 6 years ago

    I learned from a mentor that when you’re receiving Just Plain Hard feedback that it’s helpful to say, “This is hard to hear, but I’m listening.” This statement helps you to show the person offering feedback that you’re doing your best to listen but that you’re also human. I like to think it increases empathy within both people.