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Getting Real While Staying Kind: A Human-Centered Model for Delivering Feedback

Effective leadership requires clear communication, yet giving direct feedback can come across as rude if not handled properly. This paper explores how leaders can walk the fine line between providing candid performance evaluation versus offending employees. With the right approach, directness does not have to mean disrespect. By understanding different communication styles, framing feedback constructively, and maintaining empathy, leaders can have difficult conversations respectfully.

Understanding Different Communication Preferences

Not everyone prefers the same level of directness. Research suggests people vary in their sensitivity to assertive communication (Linder, 2016). Some individuals with high self-esteem are quite receptive to straightforward criticism, seeing it as an opportunity to improve, while others with lower self-esteem may internalize direct feedback as personal rejection. Leaders must account for this diversity of communication preferences to avoid unintentionally offending team members.

Developing self-awareness of one's own communication style is an important first step. Leaders who are more direct by nature need to recognize when their candor may land poorly. Meanwhile, those who are more indirect should ensure feedback is still clear enough to drive change. Understanding individual employees' preferences also helps; asking questions like "How do you like to receive feedback?" can provide useful context.

Tailoring the delivery of direct messaging based on the recipient's style helps maintain respect. For more sensitive team members, leaders may want to start with affirming what they are doing well before providing areas for growth. With thicker-skinned individuals, getting straight to opportunities may work better. The key is calibrating one's approach rather than avoiding difficult discussions altogether.

Framing Feedback Constructively

Beyond understanding different styles, leaders must frame performance evaluation in a thoughtful, solutions-oriented way. Giving direct feedback does not require harsh, negative language. Instead, leaders can focus discussions on behavioral changes, not personal character attacks.

Research suggests the most effective leaders describe observed behaviors factually without judgment, invite open dialogue, acknowledge different perspectives, and emphasize employee agency to course-correct (Rock & Garvin, 2000). For example, instead of saying "You're rude to customers," a leader could state "I've noticed you use a short tone on the phone that some clients have said comes across as dismissive. How can we work on developing a more polite phone manner?" This frames the issue concretely while respecting the employee.

Leaders should also ask open-ended questions that prompt employees to come up with their own ideas for improving before providing suggestions. For instance: "What are some strategies you think might help build stronger relationships with your peers?" Empowering staff in this way nurtures a growth mindset rather than a sense of being criticized. Discussions need not be one-sided; leaders welcoming candid feedback on their own leadership can further promote understanding.

Maintaining Empathy and Compassion

While direct feedback aims to enhance performance, leaders must balance candor with empathy, respect and compassion for the human experience. Handling evaluations with care, concern and kindness for employees as people prevents discussions from feeling like attacks.

Research on effective correction emphasizes maintaining positive regard for individuals versus just focusing on behavior (Cummins & O'Boyle, 2014). Leaders do this by actively listening without judgment, acknowledging emotions are understandable, and validating workers' good intentions and efforts even when missing the mark. They recognize everyone has room for growth and that mistakes do not define a person's character or worth.

For example, after discussing an error, a leader in a Fortune 500 technology company said "I know you put your heart into this project and wanted the best outcome. Thanks for being open to feedback - together we'll figure out how to get better results next time." His display of empathy and belief in the employee's capabilities signaled the discussion's constructive purpose versus punitive intent.

Approaching feedback with patience, understanding and compassion alleviates potential defensiveness or disengagement that hinders improvement. It reassures staff their leader cares about their well-being and development rather than just outcomes. This nurtures the psychological safety crucial for candid two-way dialogue and progress.

Practical Examples From Various Industries

The research concepts outlined can apply across industries, yet implementation looks different based on organizational culture and individual needs. Three brief case studies illustrate handling direct feedback respectfully in distinct workplace settings:

  • Hospitality: A hotel general manager noticed a front desk attendant had difficulty multi-tasking during busy periods and often became frazzled. Rather than criticize, she privately asked what support the employee needed to feel less overwhelmed. Together they brainstormed delegation strategies and established check-ins to address issues proactively. The attendant felt heard and empowered to improve.

  • Tech startup: At a growth-stage company, a manager critiqued a software engineer's code for subpar quality but in isolating examples without condemnation. They discussed process tweaks and pair programming to reinforce best practices collaboratively. The engineer left motivated to integrate the feedback into high quality work.

  • Government agency: A supervisor addressing a veteran caseworker's inconsistent documentation framed the productivity concern holistically - burnout risks, life stressors, available resources. They problem-solved accommodations respecting work-life fit while upholding standards. The caseworker felt understood and recommitted with a revised plan.

In each case, direct communication about real issues occurred without disrespect by accounting for human factors, focusing on behaviors not personas, and problem-solving cooperatively. This maintained loyalty and motivation central to performance management done well.


Delivering feedback is an imperative leadership task, yet the means matter as much as the ends. A balanced, ethical approach where candor does not cancel out care upholds the dignity of all involved. By understanding communication styles, reframing discussions constructively and maintaining empathy, leaders can have difficult yet respect-building conversations that enhance relationships and ultimately propel growth. Direct feedback, handled well, promotes accountability without callousness. This honors both individuals and the greater good organizations aim to achieve.


  • Cummins, S., & O'Boyle, I. (2014). Nonverbal communication in motivation and leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 43(2), 104–115.

  • Linder, D. E. (2016). Understanding employee perspectives of you as a leader: Discover how to improve your leadership skills. [Doctoral dissertation, Northcentral University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

  • Rock, D., & Garvin, D. A. (2000). The ultimate executive coach: Expanding the leadership repertoire. In E. Klein (Ed.), The Harvard Business Review on leadership (pp. 121–140). Harvard Business School Press.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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