How to be candid at work – without being disrespectful

Matt Tarpey

Leaders depend on feedback from teams to help their companies grow, but that's especially important for smaller businesses where leaders wear many hats. So it’s vital to create an environment where people feel free to bring up pain points, even those that bosses may not want to hear.

Most people know that the freedom to be frank doesn't mean it's open season on disrespect. One-sided conversations cause hurt feelings, sap morale and hinder resolution. When providing feedback, there are definitely positive ways and hurtful ways a conversation can go. Here are some ways to make sure no one's misunderstood.

Focus on the good of the company. The aim of feedback should be finding ways to solve problems or improve situations to build a better business together. At no point should the objective be to punish others or get them in trouble. The goal should be to improve the team dynamic, not foster division.

Stick to the facts. Favor verifiable statements over judgments. Stating “We received 10 customer complaints this week” promotes thoughtful investigation. Saying “I knew your changes to the return policy were going to cause our phones to ring off the hook” encourages defensiveness.

Assume best intentions. No matter how much you may disagree with individual coworkers, it’s always a safe bet that everyone in the workplace wants to do a good job. Keeping this in mind can help prevent conversations from becoming too personal or accusatory. In the event that you happen to have the facts wrong or speak before knowing the whole story, you won’t look like a jerk when the truth comes to light. Always state your concern in a manner that recognizes effort, such as “I think it’s great that you’re tackling the issue of X, but I worry that Y might happen if we approach it that way.”

Get to the point. Sugarcoating your feedback can raise anxiety and often muddles your message. Being polite but succinct shows others on your team that you value their time and know that they are professionals who can handle the truth when it’s presented properly. “I found a number in your report that seems off” may not be what someone wants to hear, but they’ll appreciate quickly knowing.

Be considerate. Candor does not mean disregarding other people’s feelings. Take a moment to gather your thoughts and composure before presenting negative feedback, and remember to keep language and tone civil. Likewise, avoid embarrassing someone in front of others. Leaders should be treated to this courtesy as well, meaning they shouldn’t be blind-sided during a meeting or subject to public belittling. If a topic needs to be discussed in a larger group, avoid singling any one individual out without first talking it over with them in private.

Don’t kill the messenger. Finally, realize that it requires courage for someone to come forward with unpleasant news. Take an individual’s comments seriously, but not personally, and remember that they are only trying to make the company better.

Encouraging balanced, productive feedback is an important step in creating a positive work environment, but it’s not the only one. Learn more about how to tell if your workplace is toxic and what you can do about it.
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