It's nauseating to see a leader avoid giving negative feedback because they're afraid of hurting someone's feelings. They do so because they might receive negative feedback themselves that they were too direct in delivering their message. So rather than going the direct route, they water down their message until it's a mealy-mouthed stream of meaningless jargon.
Do you want to follow a leader who doesn't speak his or her mind? Someone who is more concerned with how their actions will be perceived rather than saying what they really think? Do you want to follow a leader who is more interested in doing nothing wrong and hence not doing much of anything? Or would you rather follow someone who takes a stand for what they believe in and suffers the consequences as appropriate?
I'm not advocating cruel, rude, or offensive behavior and words. Those words and behaviors have no place in any workplace. What I'm attacking is a belief that we as leaders can't speak our minds because we might hurt someone's feelings. It's that mindset that erodes the core of leadership and dilutes it into gentle corrective actions that end up having no impact whatsoever. We need to fix this. Now. Here's how:
1. Take the But(t) Sandwich off the Menu
I hate but(t) sandwiches. Starting and ending feedback sessions with some false flattery just so you can jam a big slice of bad feedback in the middle is a waste of time. It destroys your credibility as a leader. If you begin praising someone any time after that, they'll simply be waiting for the "but..." even if it's never coming. This approach to giving feedback is terrible. Stop it.
2. Grow Up
Take your binkies out of your mouths and put your blankies away. This isn't kindergarten anymore. Feedback isn't personal. If you screwed up, step up and take it like an adult. I've screwed up plenty of times. And yes, when I took my beatings they were very unpleasant. But I took them and acted on the feedback.
When you get taken to task for doing something wrong then go crying about it to your peers, it makes you look like an immature fool. They know you screwed up. They know you're deflecting blame. If we spent as much time and energy focusing on fixing the mistake as we do on complaining to our coworkers about how mean our boss is, maybe we would perform better. You're a leader. A lot is expected of you. Getting some pointed feedback and being mature about receiving it is in your job description. A great leadership principle states "seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions."
3. Take of the Soft Shoes and Put on the Boots
When you tiptoe around an issue, you come across as weak. More likely than not the recipient of the feedback knows what they did (or didn't do). They just want you to get it over with. Dancing around the issue is a waste of time. The feedback recipient might walk away confused or with the wrong impression of how you think they're performing.
Whether you're going to saddle up and be direct or not, you'll need to remove the soft shoes and put on the boots. If you're going to be direct, you'll need the boots to deliver a swift kick in the behind. If you're still going to dance around the issue, the boots will protect your ankles from the piles of crap that will fill the room.
It's not always a glamorous job. You've chosen to do it. Be direct. Don't deliberately hurt feelings but do tell people what you think.
If you're avoiding conflict so you can fly under the radar and continue to advance your career, you have a comeuppance in your future. At some point your lack of directness will be your undoing. If you find being direct difficult, reconsider where you want to take your career. The higher you go, the less room there is for leaders who avoid conflict.
The best leaders I've ever met and worked for were direct. They were respectful of the individual, polite, and when needed, in your face with some pointed feedback. I know it made me a better performer. You've probably had similar experiences. Don't you owe that same directness to your team? Shouldn't they know exactly where they stand?
Being "nice" for the sake of avoiding conflict is dysfunctional. It will destroy your organization and your credibility. I call on each and every one of us to embrace candor and directness in the spirit of making our teams better.