Teach Your Team How to Give Feedback People Don’t Want to Hear

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Jun 25, 2019

“Your opinion matters to us.”

“We want your input as we move forward.”

“These changes will impact you, so please tell us what you think.”

For all the talk about wanting employees to be open and honest, the reality is that many organizations stifle, or even punish, such behavior. If this weren’t the case, surely more people would have spoken up sooner about the breathtaking misdeeds at companies like Enron, Cendant, Theranos and Wells Fargo.

Why do workers keep quiet? Most organizations are not democracies. The average employee doesn’t get to vote on which senior management decisions he or she will endorse. As one-party systems, organizations more closely resemble authoritarian regimes than they do free and open societies. So, regardless of how open a company considers itself to be, the risks of voicing an opinion that runs counter to company directives are so high that most employees clam up. They “go along to get along,” actively nodding their heads “yes” when they are passively behaving according to “no.”

To encourage your workers to be open and honest, you need to empower them with a skill I call “TELL Courage.” TELL Courage involves speaking with candor and conviction. When TELL Courage is activated, it causes people to assert themselves more willingly and confidently. You see TELL Courage at work when employees tactfully but truthfully provide tough feedback, . You also see it when workers raise their hands and ask for help, or when they tell you about mistakes before they’re asked. And you see it when people speak up and earn respect, as was the case for Chicago client of mine.

The ogre on the runway

Chicago’s O’Hare airport vies for the top spot as the world’s busiest airport. Because of the intense volume of air traffic, O’Hare doesn’t have the luxury of closing down any runway for an extended period of time, even for maintenance or repairs. Much of the refurbishing has to happen on the fly, so to speak, mostly occurring between midnight and 6 a.m.

Troy, a project manager I was coaching as part of a leadership development program for a Chicago-based client, was responsible for modernizing two of O’Hare’s runways. In the construction business, successful projects require tight integration between two senior-level roles: project managers (PMs), who are the organizers, and supervisors, who act as implementers. People in both roles claim to run the show, which leads to inevitable friction.

This friction was grinding in the background when Brad, the lead supervisor, called Troy at home one Friday night, halfway through a time-critical project. As Troy explained, “After working 24 hours the night before, I crashed to get some rest. PMs are on call 24 hours a day, so at 10 p.m. I answer the phone when Brad calls. He tells me to get out of bed and get him a weather report. I’m still half-asleep, so it takes some time for me to get my bearings. Brad gets pissed off at me for taking longer than he wants and starts cussing me out. Then, just like that, he hangs up!”

“I tossed in bed for over an hour, stewing about Brad’s tirade,” Troy continued. “I guess this is where the TELL Courage comes in, because I got out of bed and called Brad. He didn’t answer, so I drove down to the airport. I had to confront Brad as a matter of self-respect, and, frankly, so that he would learn to respect me.”

When Troy got to the airport, he could see Brad leaning against his truck with his arms folded and his head tilted to the side.

“What do you want?” Brad asked, clenching his jaw.

“I’m here to tell you that I didn’t appreciate your lighting into me tonight. All of us are working hard to make this project successful. We are on the same goddamned team, Brad! When you told me to go online and look at the weather reports, what did I do?”

“Hell if I know,” Brad said condescendingly. “I wasn’t going to sit there waiting. My crew has too much real work to do.”

“No, Brad, I got up, half-asleep, to get a weather report that you probably could have gotten yourself.” He went on, “Listen to me, Brad, I’m not some enemy working against you. Do I ever disrespect you like some of the other PMs you’ve worked with? No, I don’t. I value you too much to treat you like I’m better than you.”

Brad, unexpressive, stared off into the distance.

“Brad,” Troy continued, “I came down here in the middle of the night to tell you this: I’m here to help you, and I need you to help me. We’re on the same team. Don’t ever again talk to me the way you did tonight.”

Brad sighed deeply. After a moment, he unfolded his arms and extended a hand. “You’re right, Troy. I’m sorry.”

As Troy tells it, “We shook hands and never looked back. That talk at the end of the runway caused something to change in our relationship. Brad knew I respected all the pressure he was under and all the work he was doing. But that day, he also learned that I respected myself. I think that gave him confidence in my abilities as a leader. Though it wasn’t my goal, by confronting him I earned his respect, and I’ve had it ever since.”


Here are a few takeaways about TELL Courage from Troy’s story.

Clarify the dangers of not telling — While there are risks in confronting people, the bigger risks are often in not doing so. By withholding TELL Courage, workers may become ogre enablers, making ogres stronger and employees weaker. Instead, clarify with your team when and how to confront obnoxious colleagues and customers. You’ll go a long way toward ramping up their TELL Courage by sharing examples about when you have confronted ogres, too.

TELL it privately — Intimidating people draw power from having an audience. By offering Brad his TELL Courage at the end of a long runway, Troy was able to have Brad’s full attention while preventing him from playing to the crowd. Create an expectation with employees: Conversations that may potentially embarrass others should be handled privately and one-on-one. Be sure that when you confront workers about embarrassing issues, you do it out of earshot, too.

Be specific — To be most effective, TELL Courage involves precision. Troy told Brad exactly what he found offensive and precisely what his expectation was going forward. Before workers confront others, they should first write down exactly what they want to say and exactly what they hope to achieve by exercising their TELL Courage. Practice and precision pour the fear out and put the courage in.