PEOPLE want feedback that helps them grow and improve. But how you deliver it matters too.

Imagine a company where directness is prized above all else. Managers deliver blunt, harsh feedback in the name of efficiency. Now, imagine another company with a very different culture. Here, directness is nowhere to be found. Managers are accommodating and kind, overlooking mistakes or issues so as not to hurt feelings. What’s the problem with each? The first creates a toxic culture of brilliant jerks that drives people out and eats itself from within, while the second ignores issues until they build up and affect business metrics.

We have all seen these companies in the news, as a trending topic or even firsthand. You may be at one now. But it’s when we combine directness and compassion that we create a culture in which people can truly thrive at work. At Thrive Global, a behaviour-change tech company, it is called compassionate directness. It is a core value, which fuels all others. Compassionate directness is about empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree and show problems in real time. But it has to be done with compassion, empathy and understanding.

It is what allows course-correcting, improving and meeting challenges while also building teams that collaborate and care for one another. Of course, you can’t just declare you have a culture of compassionate directness. You have to create an atmosphere of mutual trust. When people get feedback from someone they trust, they know their best interests are at heart. They can see that the feedback isn’t some kind of personal attack, but it is actually a kind of support because it is offered in the spirit of helping them improve.

Without an atmosphere of trust, feedback can be a catalyst for stress and self-doubt. If you’ve ever found yourself puzzled about what your manager really meant or whether there was some kind of coded message hidden in the feedback you received, it may be a sign that you’re not working in an atmosphere of trust. How feedback is delivered is one of the most vital – and underappreciated – indicators of a company’s success. People are hungry for feedback that helps them grow and improve. According to a survey by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, 92% of people agreed that “negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance”.

But that’s a big if. A recent Gallup poll found that 26% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they get helps them improve their work. Poorly delivered feedback makes us disengaged and disempowered. By contrast, cultures that value only compassion go off course in another way. Years ago, I worked with a leader who had a habit of giving critical negative feedback padded with so many positives that his subordinates often came out thinking they were getting a promotion. Studies have long shown that managers have a tendency to soften feedback out of aversion to what they perceive as conflict. When that happens, challenges that should easily be identified and tackled are instead allowed to take root and fester – and the opportunity to course-correct.

“By presenting sub-par performance more positively than they should, managers make it impossible for employees to learn, damaging their careers and, often, the company,” Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab, organisational behaviour experts, wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review. It needs to be said: Being told we’re missing the mark can be a blow to our ego and even our identity. That’s why it is so important to shift our mindsets on how we receive feedback. Constructive feedback, after all, is how we learn and grow. It is the basis for healthy parenting, lasting friendships, career development and so much more.

If we shelter our children, friends and colleagues from information that might enrich and enhance their lives, we’re not being caring – we’re actually doing them a disservice. For many of us, especially those of us who have been raised in families or within cultures that encourage indirectness, compassionate directness may seem really hard. When we flex our compassionate-directness muscle, we’ll find that it becomes easier and more natural. We’ll see benefits at work, at home and in our relationships. To start implementing compassionate-directness into your own life, here are some small steps:

  1. Give one piece of constructive feedback and let it stand on its own

    Don’t cloud your message by padding it with irrelevant positive statements. This might be uncomfortable at first, but research shows that people are hungry for constructive feedback.

  2. Before your next on-one, pause to reflect before giving feedback

    If you’re stressed or rushed, you’re more likely to deliver feedback without compassion or empathy, even if that’s unintentional.

  3. When you notice a problem, find a way to show it immediately

    Don’t just hope a problem will go away or assume someone else will fix it. When you speak up with compassionate directness, everyone benefits.

  4. In your next meeting or one-on-one, consider another person’s perspective

    It can be as simple as pausing before a meeting to ask yourself: “Where is this person coming from?” By zooming out, you’ll be better able to see others’ motivations and understand their priorities.

  5. When you get constructive feedback, write it down and come back to it later

    That will allow you to move beyond the emotion of the moment and consider more dispassionately whether it is true.

  6. Turn a digital exchange into an in-person conversation

    A lot of nuances of human communication are lost in digital interaction. When you get to know your colleagues as people instead of just names in your inbox, you’ll build trust and camaraderie.

  7. Once a day, have a conversation where you listen mostly

    Don’t underestimate the power of your silence. Instead of giving your opinion or changing the subject, invite the other person to go deeper.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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