Feedback Coaching: How to Get Results with “Tough Love"

While many feedback coaching tips expound on the benefits of empathy in providing difficult-to-hear messages, there is a limit to empathy’s effectiveness in feedback situations. Don’t misunderstand me, I do believe empathy is a critical element of all feedback sessions. However, one thing I notice with some clients, particularly those women and men who have what research might call a “feminine leadership style”, is that too much empathy can get in the way of the other person’s ability to understand what you really would like them to do.

For example, a client of mine reported struggles with a senior management direct report who was impatient leading team members through a major change initiative. Because her direct report was very busy and felt that developing trusting relationships with his team was a waste of time, my client struggled to help her direct report understand why time spent understanding his team’s challenges was important. When I asked her to share some of the discussion it was clear that she was over-empathizing with his busy schedule (because she had one too!) The result, however, was that the direct report’s team members didn’t feel heard and were digging their heels in resisting the change. Thanks to her over-reliance on empathy (and discomfort with his resistance), her direct report wasn’t getting the message that it was his job to take the time to listen and respond to the team’s legitimate concerns.

Effective Leaders Deploy a Spectrum of Management Styles

Many leadership stereotypes tend to paint a picture of either tough leaders, capable of making decisions quickly and giving clear guidance to subordinates, or building team trust with collaboration and collegiality. In fact, research continues to show that the most effective leaders do both! For example, the highly researched 360 degree assessment, The Leadership Circle Profile, finds that relating skills (i.e., caring and collaborative) are 85% correlated and achieving skills (i.e., decisive and purposeful) are 91% correlated to leadership effectiveness.

As this data shows, the ability to choose when to use relating styles (like empathy) and when to use achieving styles (like strategic focus) is what defines a leader’s overall effectiveness. Separate research has even found that leaders and managers who master the spectrum of management responses to different situations actually receive more recognition and career success.

The Importance of Mastering Tough Love Feedback

Even though most people default to a comfort zone at one end of the management spectrum than the other, everyone seems capable (once they know the importance of gaining both relating and achieving skills) of becoming proficient at both ends. However, it’s the troublesome middle of the spectrum, that is most challenging. This is because so many people have been taught an inauthentic version of the “Feedback Sandwich” where you say something nice, then critical, and then wrap it up with “nice” again. An authentic version of the sandwich can actually work well, where you really mean both the nice and the harder truths you’re passing along. But too many people use this advice as a formula for feedback, and they think that it obviates the need for them to do the harder work of authenticity and truth.

But authenticity and truth are, in fact, the keys to effective feedback, regardless of the order in which you give it. Many of my clients struggle with this until we explore the concept of “tough love” as the key to authentic and truthful feedback. The experience of giving hard truths while holding compassion for the person listening to them, is easy for many of us to wrap our heads (and hearts) around. And this is how to span the middle to the leadership spectrum between relationship-strengthening styles and result-focused approaches. I think this is because we can all relate to how effective being tough with those we love (e.g., children and pets) can be in some situations. We can all usually think of some tough love we’ve received, too, and appreciate that the person who gave it to us really wanted us to grow.

Tough love isn’t about being mean, it’s about being compassionate and clear.

Tough love is also a critical element in giving the kind of feedback intended to coach someone to greater success. Coaching feedback doesn’t tell someone how to do something, but creates a safe space within which they can try, fail and succeed to figure it out themselves. Of course, not all kinds of feedback can be straight-out coaching, but creating a safe space for the person receiving the feedback without feeling overly (or personally) judged is always a good idea.

How to Give Tough Love Coaching Feedback

One of the most challenging aspects of giving tough love feedback is that it requires the leader to notice that moment where they are defaulting towards either empathetic or straight-forward, no-holds-barred messages. In that moment when they notice going to an extreme, they need to pause and take a mindful moment of discomfort to reorient. In this moment they must decide to hold compassion in their heart while also setting the intention to ensure there is no room for misunderstanding their message.

Patience and compassion for failure is the “love” part of tough love.

Here are a few tips:

  1. NOTICE and DECIDE: Notice your discomfort and default pattern to an extreme. In this mindful moment, decide if this is a situation that merits a “tough love” approach.
  2. SET A POSITIVE INTENTION FOR FEEDBACK SUCCESS: Yourfeedbackintention means you have a clear idea of what success looks like. What does it look like when the person you’re talking to is doing the behavior you want them to change correctly? For tough love feedback to succeed it’s not enough to explain what they’re doing wrong. You must also be able to describe what it looks like when they’re doing it right. And to be sure they get it, you need to ask them to describe success in their own words so you can tell to what extent they’re really understanding. This might generate more discussion and dialog, which is good! The goal is to be aligned on what success looks like in the positive sense so it’s worth the dialog.
  3. DECIDE HOW MUCH SAFE SPACE TO GIVE THEM. Depending on the situation sometimes you have time to let them fall on their face a few times before getting it right. This means refraining from telling them how to do something and letting them figure it out through their own failures and successes. Other times you don’t have the luxury of letting them fail. When you don’t have the time and space to let them fail you can still give them part of the answers and explain you want them to figure the rest out on their own.
  4. WITHHOLD PERSONAL JUDGEMENT. Regardless of how much safe space you give them, the real key to tough love coaching feedback is to communicate authentically to them that you understand they’re learning, that you have patience with their process and you have compassion for their struggles. This compassionate patience is the “love” part of tough love. To demonstrate your patience, you need to ensure that your judgement is not personal. Make it clear your feedback is in judgement of the outcome, not them.

As you can see, giving tough love coaching feedback is anything but formulaic, easy or simple. It requires you as the leader to call on your personal emotional intelligence to navigate challenging interpersonal communications. Yet the rewards can be great, leading to loyal, engaged and effective employees.

by Dana Theus