Why telling employees 'you're great' is the cruelest thing you can do

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Nobody likes giving or getting critical feedback, but it's necessary to improve and grow. Not doing so can jeopardize your team and company.

The annual review process has been under intense scrutiny this year.

Dozens of companies have scrapped the system, saying annual feedback is not working in motivating and retaining workers. Instead, some companies, including General Electric, SAP, and Deloitte, have started to implement regular feedback systems, often with software in place to underscore the regular coaching environment.

Employees and managers alike are relieved that the feedback system is getting a long-overdue makeover. But there's a big piece still missing: it's not just about the frequency of employee feedback that needs to be changed, but also the substance of feedback..

When we started researching what was top-of-mind for managers, critical feedback quickly emerged as a huge concern. Our research confirmed what we'd long believed from anecdotal experience: most people are terrible at it. The truth is, most people hate giving criticism, and even more people hate receiving it.

One name that kept popping up in our research was Kim Scott. Scott is the co-founder of Radical Candor a company and framework that she's developed to teach effective and compassionate feedback. In this excellent piece by First Round, Scott explains that radical candor is at the intersection of "giving a damn" about someone and being "willing to piss someone off." In other words, the best feedback happens when you are able to give blunt, hard advice--but only because you actually want to see that person improve and grow.

Conversely, the worst feedback happens when you're worried about being nice and empathetic. It's human nature to want to be liked, so people--even bosses--tend to tell employees how great they are when they don't mean it. They bury the criticism in flowery, opaque language--or avoid it altogether.

Being nice might feel good, but it's counterproductive. Rather than helping your employee, you're actually doing something very cruel: You're keeping them in the dark about what they need to do to improve, just so you can feel better. As Scott recounts in the article, she once fell into the "kindness trap" with a man on her team. As a result, he had no idea how poorly he was performing. In the end, he was fired.

How many times have you done this, in the workplace or even at home? How often do parents tell their children how great they are when what they really need is strong feedback that challenges them to do better? I struggle with this at home myself. I hate hurting my kids' feelings, but when they do work that is subpar, it is only me who can point this out--because I love them so much. Their peers, their teachers, even their relatives do not care as much as me--so their feedback is not nearly as effective.

The takeaway? Honest critical feedback may be painful--but in the long run, it will serve the needs of your organization (and your employees) much better than insincere politeness.

So how do other bosses give critical feedback? Watch our Radiate video below to find out.


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