The Six Lies Leaders Tell Themselves to Avoid Giving Feedback

CLEAN-giving feedback

As a leadership coach and trainer, I hear tons of reasons why people don’t give direct feedback. What we don’t realize is the cost of NOT providing honest feedback to the people who work for us.

Like the 55-year-old government employee who keeps being given the next hoop to jump through before he can lead an organization. But no one is telling him that his behavior in meetings is so disruptive that if he doesn’t change, he’ll never be promoted.

Or the CFO who deferentially apologizes before and after each of her sentences while her teammates check their Blackberries. No one tells her it’s because she appears insecure and lacks authority.

We’re suffering individually and collectively from a dearth of clear and honest feedback. Why are we not telling people the truth? Let’s face it — usually it’s because we’re afraid of how the other person will react. In other words, it’s about you, not them – it’s your ego!

Here are the excuses I hear most often:

  1. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Sorry to be blunt, but this is B.S. This is more about you than the other person. What it really means is “if I am direct and honest with this person, they may not like what I have to say and they won’t like me any more.” Giving feedback is exactly that – giving. It requires us to be vulnerable, take a risk and be honest, even if the other person doesn’t like what we have to say. And to be empathic when we’re delivering a difficult pill to swallow.
  2. If I give them (negative) feedback, it will hinder their performance. I typically hear this about rock star performers who are bringing in tons of money, managing the biggest projects or working the most hours, and no one wants the potential downside if they were to react negatively to the feedback. In most cases, in their absolute focus on results, these people have a long line of dead bodies strewn behind them. Trust me, no organization can afford dead bodies. No matter how high performing someone is, it will come back to bite you in the end.
  3. I’ll do it in the performance review. This is a total cop out. Why avoid doing what needs to be done when it is most effective and impactful — when the situation is current? The most powerful feedback is delivered in the moment. By the time the performance review rolls around, you’ll have forgotten the incident and not be connected to the relevant facts of what occurred in the first place.
  4. I need to gather more data. I hear this all the time. “I’ve only worked with so-and-so for 6 months now, I can’t possibly give feedback on them, I don’t know them well enough.” Or “I only sit in on one meeting a week with him” or “It’s only my perspective, I need to go around and talk to the rest of the team.” Are you kidding me? I can give someone feedback on their counterproductive behaviors after a 30-minute conversation. If someone is not listening, they are not listening. If a leader behaves in ways that intimidates others, it’s a problem. You don’t need ten other people to affirm that you’re right. And, as a matter of fact, if even one person experiences the consequences of someone’s behavior, I guarantee it’s not an isolated incident.
  5. People don’t change. I hear this a lot. It makes me very sad. Do we have so little hope in the human capacity to change that we give up on people? Frankly, if people didn’t change, I would be selling iPhones down at the Apple store. This is my job, folks, the business of helping people change. Of course people change! ‘Nuff said.
  6. Real leaders are born, not made. See point # 5 above, People don’t change. This probably warrants another blog post.

What was the last lie you told yourself and the real reasons holding you back?

  1. Kathleen Prophet says:

    Really appreciate this post… as it is DESPERATELY NEEDED! I can’t agree more with you on the seriousness of the problem of ineffective communication by leaders And your solutions are spot on!

    Unfortunately, our society doesn’t teach people how to face and deal with conflict. We should be getting this training in pre-school on up. Instead we are taught to be nice and stuff it. Effective communication training needs to be a TOP PRIORITY for companies! I am so glad to know that you and I know some others have taken this problem to heart and teaching us how. Hope this gets into our schools and homes!

    1. Anonymous says:

      Thanks Kathleen – I so agree, authentic communication and leadership is really our goal with our training, and helping people create safe teams, companies and environments to talk about the real issues. Thanks for coming here and sharing your insights!

    2. Laura Gates says:

      Kathleen that comment was from me!

  2. Jonathan says:

    Great post, quick and to the point. It reminds me of a key piece in our work at Learning as Leadership – that the cost / discomfort associated with being direct may be intense, but it’s typically short lived (it usually resolves the day of or at least the week of the difficult conversation). While the cost of NOT being direct is long-lasting, dull, and often leads to severely “broken” relationships. One brings people closer together, one slowly pushes them apart. That said – lord is it hard to give direct feedback sometimes! 😉

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Yes, it is very hard. I had this experience last week of giving feedback that was really hard for the other person to hear. That is why the practice of empathy is so important. And also for me to hold in my heart that this is truly a gift for the person…

  3. nasrine says:

    I love this post, thank you so much for sharing. Learning to lead or to be in a leadership role is a huge challenge for many. For men at times it can be a different journey than for women. Also, conflict doesn’t need to be scary, in fact it could be empowering to find a solution, I love Kathleen’s idea regarding teaching the art of resolving conflict in pre-school, it really doesn’t need to be full of drama and draining, it can evolve into something else. Again thank you.

    1. Laura Gates says:


      I agree, the sooner we can see conflict as not a “bad” thing to be avoided but something that will bring us closer, is so powerful. I can see another blog post on this topic alone, as it is very near and dear to my heart!

      1. nasrine says:

        I for one would be so excited to learn more. Conflict is always really scary to me, however in the past few years, I have flipping it around, as an amazing tool to master. What a great skill to gain. Thank you again.

  4. Tesse AKpeki says:

    Revealing in the linkage between the ego and feedback and really practical and optimistic too. Thanks Laura.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Thanks Tesse for stopping by on the blog here, as you can see we are posting some pretty interesting articles on a regular basis, particularly around the ego and how that plays out in various ways. Hope to see you soon!

  5. Linda Beitz says:

    GREAT post, Laura! As a mediator, this all rings very true to my experience – of not just leaders – but most of us. And where did we learn to be so conflict-avoidant? Mostly people tell me it all began in their families of origin. So, as you well know, like a lot of things we might have learned from that source – it takes coaching and training to move into a different way of being. Shifting the perception of conflict as something to be avoided – to something to be harnessed and channeled productively is happening! And leaders are benefiting from supporting that shift. Here’s an example: Again, thanks, Laura.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Linda, great article, thanks for passing that along! I certainly learned conflict avoidance growing up. The dinner table had this appearance that all was well, with a very stressful undercurrent of all that was unsaid. That is one thing I love about the workshops we do at LaL – that ability to get to the root of these behaviors that are built in from such an early age. It creates such dysfunctional cultures where people find it almost impossible to be real with each other. The work you are doing is clearly needed, sometimes people just need to be able to get the dialogue started!

  6. Robin says:

    Laura, You make some great points. I’m familiar with each one of them from either a direct report perspective or that of having been a manager many years ago. (it was prior to my training with you all, so my primary modus operindi was to sugar coat my feedback…talk about a sure fire way to build resentment and distrust!). In my experience the boss who uses the “people don’t change” reasoning is also the person who him or herself is afraid to change. Coincidence? Don’t think so. Also, I’d add a 7th point for the boss who avoids direct feedback by delivering his/her comments in front of the entire team and in a way that is shaming. This is the boss whose comments have a grain of truth in them but are delivered in a way and at a time that creates fear and distust not only in the person its intended for, but the entire team. While its true that the employee can choose to respond in a constructive way, a precedent has been set that makes direct feedback harder to give and recieve.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Robin, this is such a great contribution to the dialogue, the point of publicly stating feedback, often in an obtuse way that in fact is painful for the person who receives it. I have had this experience before, where I was being given “feedback” in this sideways way. Thanks for adding your perspective.

  7. Laura, I fully agree with the points you raise above. I have several blog posts on this topic in my hopper (not published yet) and your post reminds how important this topic is. I would add that another big reason people fail to give feedback is that they don’t know how to give it effectively or receive it graciously. Giving it with non-attachment and from a place of genuine service is so important. Receiving it with curiosity and discernment is vital. And doing both from a place of presence is ideal. I have done trainings on giving and receiving feedback (ironically, I think it’s important to start with “receiving feedback”) and coached clients on these topics as well. Giving and receiving feedback is a particular type of communication that is not taught or modeled well in our culture as a whole, let alone in business. Thanks for this post!

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Laurie, you are welcome! And I love the addition to the conversation about the art of RECEIVING feedback (a whole new post topic!). This is something we teach in our Shared Mastery team building workshop and it so HARD! People want to rationalize, explain and justify themselves. And I have noticed that receiving positive feedback, ironically, can be even more challenging. But yes, teaching people both of these things is invaluable, I can’t wait to read your perspectives on it!

  8. Johan Surewaard says:

    Laura, well written and to the point. It does make it easier to give feedback if you realise the points made. A good reminder for me and also good to share with my team. Thanks. Johan

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Johan, so glad the post was helpful. I hope things are going well with you and the team!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Data shmata. The worst thing a leader can do is pile up tons of data over a long period of time. Get in there and find something good the worker is doing and something that can be improved. If you lay too much feedback on at once it won’t be appreciated or followed through.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      This true, giving people one or two things to focus on really helps

  10. Cuitie-Butie says:

    I remember one of my first observations of a co-worker who had about 10 years more experience than I did. I was new to the company – only 2 years in and I was promoted above her. The first time we sat down to discuss her performance she just shut down and didn’t want to hear a thing. She didn’t talk to me for days.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Yes, I have had this happen too, when people’s feelings are hurt or they feel not respected in some ways. It’s a delicate line between being direct and honest and adding the piece of empathy so you don’t completely lose the other person.

  11. Floyd Hobbs says:

    I have found that it’s best to give one positive thing and one that can be worked on. Then another observation is done to see if there is improvement.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Yes, this is a crucial piece Floyd, the follow up. So many people give the feedback, and then get upset when they give the review a year later and nothing has changed, but they did nothing along the way to support the person in changing!

  12. Archie says:

    Too many workers get by without feedback that would make them aware of hwo they are doing. I wonder if businesses gave better feedback in the past if the U.S. would have better workers compared to places in Asia.

  13. Kamikaze says:

    There are plenty of workers out there that need to be told they suck – but more politley, of course. If you can’t get rid of the dead weight or improve their output, you shouldn’t be in a position to give the feedback.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      This is true, although I work with a lot of government clients and it’s almost impossible to get rid of someone, so you need to find a different approach!

  14. Raymond Chip Lambert says:

    I have been in leadership for many years and I can tell you that I have had the most respect from my workers when I give them honest feedback that allows them to become better at their job. Sure, you will have that employee that blows up at you, but thats okay. If they eventually take what you are saying to heart, it will help them.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      That’s great, and thanks for sharing that here, because it’s exactly the point I am trying to make – be direct, be honest and people are usually grateful in the end (if not a little reactive in the moment).

  15. Bruce Kaufman says:

    When I moved into management I thought I could still be everyones friend. However, I learned that it doesn’t work. I am still friendly with them, but when the time comes and I have to get results, sometimes feelings get hurt. I even let a good friend go once because he just wasn’t making improvements fast enough compared to other workers. I think it was just as hard on me.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      I hear this a lot Bruce, that things change when you get to that next level, relationships are altered, on both sides.

  16. Becky Kennedy says:

    People can change, some easier than others. What they need (or you) is buy in so that they think there is something good to come from the change.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Yes, I agree Becky. If they can see that the change will improve their lives overall, and is not just about doing something for the company to perform better, there is usually buy-in. But it’s true that people need to want to change to change.

  17. Nathan says:

    I think the problem with performance reviews are that they don’t come around often enough. Performance reviews should be ongoing – just as the feedback should be.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Exactly my point Nathan. We need to be having ongoing conversations, it also makes it easier and not build up everything to say at once.

  18. Nelson Lyons says:

    Knowing how to give proper feedback is essential for keeping workers motivated and on task. Feedback doesn’t have to be negative!

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Exactly, I didn’t mention it here, but I think employees also feel a lack of recognition and praise and bosses sometimes feel why do I need to praise them just for doing their job? People need to feel acknowledged, it’s a human need.

  19. Billie Moss says:

    I’ve worked with many who don’t give quality feedback to workers. I am a school administrator and this has been one of my goals since becoming one. I feel it is my job to make sure that teachers are getting the proper feedback to make them better at their job, and of course, I expect the same from my superiors so that I can improve.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Great point Billie, we forget that this applies just as much in domains of education as they are in business!

  20. Bobbi Owens says:

    More excuses: Oftentimes, the environment doesn’t invite real feedback. Risk taking is rewarded by overreaction to a mistake. There’s a need to fit into the environment, not make waves. Covert lines of communication lead up to the top as opposed to direct communication. These covert lines of communication are usually one-sided and serve the purpose of the “whisperer”.
    These are all “fear based” excuses. However, they sometimes drive basic communication and thwart innovation. I spend a lot of time trying to determine what associates are really saying. Direct communication whether it’s performance feedback or expectations and instructions saves time and make for better teams.

    1. Laura Gates says:

      It’s so true Bobbi, having direct communications can have a huge impact on results.

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