Stop sugar-coating your feedback

Research shows too many managers hold back from giving clear and direct instructions.
Stop sugar-coating your feedback

Too many managers give feedback, only to discover their direct reports don’t respond as hoped or missed the message completely about a need for change.

That may be because the message — whether about steps needed to improve or laying down the line on expectations — didn’t get through.

Research conducted by Michael Schaerer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organisational behaviour and human resources at Singapore Management University, found that managers often end up “sugar-coating” their feedback, often without even realising they’ve softened their approach.

“Managers may simply not be very accurate in their communication, even when they intend to be accurate,” he said.

The softening of language and feedback results from fear of conflict; what Schaerer calls “emphatic buffering”, when a manager holds back their criticisms to spare an employee’s feelings; and the illusion of transparency, when a person believes they are being clear and direct but, in actuality, they are not.

That unconscious softening of criticism on behalf of a manager in turn leads to misunderstandings.

“If the subordinate has a better understanding of what the supervisor expects, then their work will also be more effective, which will benefit the team as a whole,” Schaerer said.

Several experts offered their thoughts on how to clearly communicate expectations across an organisation.

Pay attention to what you say. Too many managers use ambiguous statements when giving feedback, Schaerer said. For instance, research shows that the phrase “a real possibility” could be interpreted as an event’s likelihood of happening is anywhere from 20% to 80%. That range means an employee may not understand exactly how imminent a decision may be or may misunderstand how important an upcoming project may be.

Another example is the variance in language usage. Schaerer once had a supervisor who told him his performance was “good”. But instead of that being a positive, that particular supervisor was a bit of an optimist, and anything less than a “great” or “amazing” report usually meant performance was mediocre at best.

Schaerer’s advice: Ditch the language that can be ambiguous, and give clear examples of what’s expected. Instead of just recommending a staff person increase their output, describe in clear terms of what the expectations are, such as stating that three revenue reports should be completed per quarter or that at least three client-facing meetings should be held a week.

Be direct. Having clear and consistent discussions about expectations is a central piece of how Don Kluthe, CPA, CGMA, the president and COO of AmeriFirst Home Improvement Finance, manages his US-based company. He expects that he can be blunt and honest with his senior leadership team and that they in turn communicate clear feedback to their reports.

“We just don’t have time for what I consider games or dishonesty in relationships,” he said.

When an issue comes up, he makes finding a solution a requirement for his senior leadership team, who meet on a weekly basis.

“Let’s define what the problem is, and then let’s define whether or not there is a solution that’s brought to the table,” he said.

Kluthe’s top leaders now know that when they bring an issue to him, they should also have ideas about solutions to present at the same time.

Consider your approach. Try to switch up the ways you give feedback so that you can make sure the employee is in a position to concentrate and to digest the feedback, said Oluseyi Oladimeji Olanrewaju, FCMA, CGMA, Ph.D., finance director of Vodacom Business Africa and based in Lagos, Nigeria. He tries to be clear in his feedback and sometimes takes a supervisee out to lunch or at other times meets in the office to give his report on performance. Being direct, and then following up to ensure suggestions are taken up, are key.

“I don’t spare my colleagues or my direct reports from feedback, either good or bad,” he said. Olanrewaju also follows up meetings with emails to ensure he was clear and understood.

Don’t wait to respond. Too many managers wait to give their feedback, Schaerer said, but employees may miss the point about needing to adjust workplace behaviours if they’re finding out about dissatisfaction weeks or months after an incident.

He suggested thinking of feedback in two different buckets: high-level and low-level. High-level examples are suggestions of skills development or promotion potential — the type of feedback that can be covered in meetings once or twice a year. Low-level feedback should deal with performance on particular projects and reports, and a chance to talk about how daily tasks are handled. Giving this type of feedback as issues come up, such as in weekly check-ins, makes it more likely that the employee will adopt needed changes, Schaerer said.

Avoid giving feedback solely in writing. When you give constructive criticism only in writing, you raise the possibility it may be misconstrued, Schaerer said. People need to talk to someone in person, or at least via videoconference, to pick up on contextual cues.

Research has shown that 70% of a statement’s impact comes through nonverbal communication (essentially, how something is said) while only 30% is gathered from what is actually said, according to Schaerer.

“Managers may simply not be very accurate in their communication, even when they intended to be accurate,” he said.

Use feedback to address interpersonal issues. Kluthe also doesn’t let tension or difficult relationships on his teams fester for long, and he gives clear feedback to staff that there is no room in his organisation for unhealthy levels of bickering. He believes that people should check their dislikes at the door when it comes to work and be willing to roll up their sleeves and work with others, regardless of personal likes or dislikes.

Kluthe said he has gathered people, including bickering supervisors and reports, in a room together and told them to figure out ways they can productively work together. He uses this type of feedback to steer his subordinates back to the business mission at hand and away from personal disagreements or unhealthy rivalries that may be popping up.

“We don’t have an organisation that’s going to allow them here to hold up whatever it is we need to accomplish,” he said. “Part of it is setting expectations and holding everyone to the same accountable standard.”

Assess communications. To make sure your message is getting across, take a step back to evaluate how you’ve been delivering your feedback. And if ambiguity has been seeping in, taking time to ensure feedback is clear and direct will help avoid any further confusion. It’s also a chance to consider whether you’re treating staff members fairly and equitably, and not unfairly coming down on one member of your team more than others.

Schaerer has realised that he needs to be more honest about his observations and offer clear examples of what success looks like to him.

“I’ve become more conscious of my communication and how it is perceived by others,” he said.

By taking care of how feedback is delivered, you can avoid confusion and ensure your team can grow and meet the challenges in front of them.

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at