Performance Conversations: How to Deliver the F-Word Even When You’re Not the Boss

Perfect-ServiceThe correct use of feedback (the F-Word) can enhance relationships and results.  The improper use will damage relationships and stall success.  Do you deliver the F-Word correctly?

My daughter just graduated from college.  We held a party for her and she was helping us prepare the house and the food.  She was creating a fruit plate with a wide variety of cut fruit.  She is an artist and therefore incredibly creative.

I looked over and she had used a good deal of grapes as a border for the serving plate.  I asked her, “Why are you using so many grapes when we have so many different types of fruit?  I thought you were going to alternate the grapes with the pineapple, watermelon, etc.”

A few minutes passed.  She was silent. I looked over at her eyes full of tears.  She took my questions and observation as criticism.  In a soft and humble tone she asked me, “Would you rather do this Dad?”  I knew I had messed up.  I had damaged her motivation and creativity with just a few sentences. Some of you may think she was being overly sensitive but I believe in the communication maxim, “communication is the response I get.”  I must therefore take responsibility for the unintended response I received from my daughter.   If we want to influence others and protect trust we must embrace this communication maxim.  We must take our portion of the responsibility for poor communication.  We must own our part.

One of the most important skills a manager and leader must develop is the ability to know how and when to deliver feedback in order to maintain employee engagement.  Here are three great rules to help you deliver the F-Word correctly to optimize influence.

Feedback and Criticism are NOT the Same

For some unexplained reason the average person rarely makes a distinction between feedback and criticism.  This is a serious mistake.  Take time and open up the dictionary.  Feedback is data from a process for the purpose of learning.  Criticism is opinion.  My daughter interpreted my comments about her fruit plate as criticism or opinion and she was correct.

Feedback, by definition, is direct observation or a review of data collected in a transparent and/or an “agreed upon” method.  For example, regarding my daughter, I could have said, “You put grapes around the entire perimeter of the fruit plate.”   While doing this I must also be aware of my tone of voice.  It should be neutral because data is neutral.

Another example: if someone is late I could tell him/her, “We were scheduled to meet at 2 PM and it is now 2:30 PM.  You are 30 minutes later than I expected.”  If you really want to deliver feedback keep this idea in mind: it is observable and the tone must be neutral.  If either is missing, it can quickly become criticism and criticism can harm the trust.

Deliver Criticism Only with Permission

Sometimes we need to deliver criticism.  Sometimes we must give our opinion.  If you are going to do so, I recommend we name it what it is i.e. an opinion.  Furthermore, we must ask permission prior to delivery to avoid a negative response.  With my daughter I could have asked, “May I give you my opinion about the fruit plate?”  It’s not wrong to deliver criticism but how and when we do it is important.

My daughter had tears because she took my criticism to heart and it was unsolicited.  I inadvertently hurt her feelings.  Hurt feelings will most certainly damage engagement and motivation.  I wanted her to hear my opinion but instead she shut down. I can either blame her for being overly sensitive or I can change my approach, ask her permission, and then deliver my opinion in a neutral tone.

Help Others to Receive Their Own

Motivation is improved when people have control over their own feedback.  The best leaders willingly arrange for others to track their own progress.  This sense of freedom leads to motivation and commitment.


The best leaders deliver the F-Word in accurate, careful and frequent ways.  Poor leaders often avoid giving feedback because they fear the tears (poor reactions from employees), they worry about arguments, and they are concerned about damaging motivation.   But, if they appreciate the three rules (the difference between feedback and criticism, asking permission before criticizing, and assisting others to collect their own feedback) their fears will fade and motivation will bloom.

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