The Secret to How Leaders Give Feedback

by Alli Polin on September 2, 2014

What's the secret to how leaders give powerful feedback? Managerial Courage

I can remember the moment the COO looked me in the eye and she asked what I thought of the candidate we just took to dinner.  I didn’t like the candidate for many reasons, but I figured if she made it all the way to dinner with the COO, a lot of people must have loved her throughout her interviews.  I was nervous, had intense butterflies in my stomach and the clock even seemed to slow down.

The moment of truth: Would I share my concerns or cave into peer pressure and say she’s great?

Then I remembered that leaders give feedback in service, not fear.

What did I have to be afraid of really?

Not agreeing with a senior leader?
Having a dissenting opinion?

Come on!  There are a lot better things to be afraid of in life, like huge spiders and sky diving.  Giving feedback and sharing your opinion should not be high on the “most feared” list.

What I really should have feared was giving the green light to a candidate who was a poor fit for our organization. The damage she could do to our team would be far greater than any damage I could do to my career by speaking my truth when asked.

Service Erases Fear (or at least quells it)


  • When you reframe your action in the context of service it’s no longer about you and your nerves.
  • Feedback is information and it’s about how and why you share it, not the fact that you have to give it.
  • If you want to play your part to ensure the success of others, and not only yourself, honest feedback is critical.

Learn How Leaders Give Feedback from My Nine Year Old Son

Recently, I’ve been making videos for a course I’m about to launch. Every day when the kids come home from school, I’m quick to ask if they want to see my latest video.  They’re both sweet and patient so over their afternoon snack they’ll humor me.

After they watch the video of the day I ask, “So, what did you think?”

Usually, I’m told it’s wonderful, a 10 out of 10!  (They are my kids after all.)

On this occasion, my son shared with me “It’s wonderful!  I’d give it a 9 out of 10 and I’ll tell you why…” and he did.

His feedback was:

  • Given in service of making my product stronger.
  • Shared with love.
  • Offered with confidence because he owned his opinion.
  • Experienced as both encouraging and specific.
  • Delivered without fake flattery and totally honest.

Moreover, he didn’t just share his thoughts and disappear.  He asked what I thought about what he had to say.  He offered to show me what he meant real time and to go back through the video with me.  He gave his feedback in service of my success because he cared enough to be invested in my success.  

Zoom back to my dinner with the COO and our candidate. 

I told the COO that I didn’t think we should hire her and shared my reasons why.  I spoke in service of the success of our team and in service of the candidate too; It’s hard to make an impact when you’re a poor fit for the role and organization.

Once I stopped speaking, the COO looked at me and told me that she admires people with managerial courage and thanked me for my thoughtful and honest response.  Then she shared what I never would have guessed… she didn’t love the candidate either and we would not be extending an offer.

I spent energy, assuming I knew the right answer and also assuming my response was the wrong answer.  Oh how wrong I was!  This was not a test with right and wrong answers, it was a test of my leadership.  It was a test for me to get out of my head and speak the truth because it was the right thing to do.  Even if the candidate was hired, I would rest well knowing I shared my perspective honestly, in service and with courage.  That’s all any of us can do.

Feedback serves the purpose of enabling another to know where we stand and how they can grow.  After that, it’s up to them if they choose to listen, act or react.  Be a leader who gives others your best by giving feedback with heart and in service of them being and doing their very best.

What about you?  How have you been able to break the frame that feedback is somehow about you and tap into a service mindset?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Rhodes September 2, 2014 at 8:37 am

Giving feedback can be hard. Just like a difficult conversation. I love the visual of these conversations being in service of the company and the person. This completely makes the conversation not about yourself which is what great leaders do. Honest feedback 10 out of 10.


Alli Polin September 4, 2014 at 7:35 am

I know that difficult conversations are one of your great strengths and it’s where so many others struggle. Taking your discomfort out of the conversation and really focusing on helping the other person is key. Service turns so many things around 🙂 I think one of the many reasons that you don’t shy away from these types of conversations is your authentic desire to do what’s best for the individual, team and organization.

Appreciate you!


Bill Benoist September 2, 2014 at 9:04 am


The concept of giving feedback not being about you is so important, yet so often not considered. Great takeaway from this post.

I have a twist for you. I recently witnessed someone ask for feedback from a small group of individuals and then became defensive when one of them offered some suggestions. I hesitate to even use the word critique, but the individual asking was not prepared for unfiltered feedback.


Alli Polin September 4, 2014 at 7:33 am

Thanks, Bill! So interesting that asking for the feedback does not mean that you’re prepared to hear it. I’m putting a new eCourse into Beta test tomorrow and asked my husband to be one of the people to go through the course. I emphasized that I want honest feedback that will make it stronger. He gave me an eye roll and a laugh. In this case I really do want the honest feedback! Unfortunately, too often leaders say they do and really just want others to tell them how great they are and that they’re right. Thanks for adding such an important dimension to this conversation.


Terri Klass September 2, 2014 at 11:02 am

Feedback is tough sometimes when we have to share information that someone else might not be happy to hear. That is why I try to make the feedback as honest, specific and descriptive as possible so others see that I am sharing “belief” in them.

I just had a working lunch with someone who needed to make a decision about letting someone go. I made sure to ask all the details and I shared that he needed to be a leader in this situation. I also told him how much I supported his decision even though it was controversial.

I also must tell you that you have one bright and caring son! Alli, loved the post and making me think about feedback in such a beneficial way!


Alli Polin September 4, 2014 at 7:29 am

Terri – this is so critical! It’s not about sharing a feeling but backing up with specifics with a big helping of belief! Especially when having tough conversations or making hard decisions it’s easy to get caught up in feeling really alone. Just knowing that someone else has heard us, sees us and cares is immensely empowering.

My son is wonderful… so is my girl. They are tough and give me a run for my money, but also sensitive, thoughtful and clearly listen to what I have to say once in a while. I can tell when they play it back!

Thanks, Terri!


Samantha Hall September 2, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Excellent post Alli.

This is exactly how I view feedback. It’s service.

Honest feedback is not meant to be a reflection of popular opinion. Nor should it be. It is not necessarily representing the whole truth either. It’s our perspective and an offering of how we see it and feel it. We are merely providing our piece to the puzzle…not creating the entire puzzle.

One of the leaders most important tasks at times is to collect everyone’s puzzle pieces on the team so the best decisions can be made. A leader can’t do that without honest feedback.

I look at it this way, if you aren’t giving honest feedback to your leaders and/or team, you are setting them and yourselves up to fail.

Honest feedback is essential.

Granted, sometimes people don’t want and certainly don’t like honest feedback. And this is when being honest can backfire. If a leader doesn’t want honesty and considers that honesty to be threatening to them in some way, you can easily become the enemy instead of being an honest asset and ally.

Great post Alli!


Alli Polin September 4, 2014 at 7:25 am

Samantha –

What an important insight!! Our opinion and perspective is not the answer but one piece in a much larger puzzle. What a fantastic metaphor! It’s also not about being right but sharing what we believe is right in service of the individual and the whole.

I’ve totally been there too when a leader has asked for honest feedback but what they were really asking for was for others to vocally agree with their already irreversible decision. Unfortunately, I learned quickly that asking and listening to the answer do not always go hand in hand.

I too choose honesty with love and service in the mix. It’s what I try to do and what I admire in others.

Many thanks to you for adding to the conversation!


LaRae Quy September 2, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Spot on, Alli!

Nothing can replace honest feedback, even when we’re the minority voice.

But like you, I’ve often found that my opinions frequently underscored the same feelings, thoughts, behavior of my supervisor. And if they didn’t, it gave the supervisor more feedback to make better decisions.


Alli Polin September 4, 2014 at 7:20 am

It can be so hard to find the courage to speak up knowing that you’re going to be the minority voice but it’s worth it every single time.

Every data point, perspective and idea creates a stronger solution – why not be a leader who contributes to shared success with honesty, integrity and service?

Thanks, LaRae!


Jon Mertz September 2, 2014 at 6:53 pm


I love the frame of feedback as a service. It is a great mindset to adopt, and one I plan to use! Giving feedback is tough. We get fearful of what the reaction will be and how we will be perceived. In a service mindset, we will likely deliver the feedback a little differently and be able to better navigate between our two fears. Excellent!




Alli Polin September 4, 2014 at 7:18 am

You’re right on, Jon. Most of the time we work ourselves up but the service mindset takes us out of our heads and puts our hearts in the right place too. Many thanks for your feedback and comment!


David Tumbarello September 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm

What a great story & observations about your interaction with your son. Feedback is just that — Feedback. It is not criticism. It is not saying, “You must change.” It is not showing power nor saying someone is “bad”.

Feedback is a few things. (1) It can be observation. “I saw you engage in X behavior.” (2) It can be opinion. “I felt Candidate X’s responses were not complete.” (3) It can be comparison. “I noticed last year your sales figures were X and this year they are Y.” (4) It may include a request for dialogue. “Why is that?” “How do you feel about it?” “Your thoughts?” (5) It can be a request to adhere to Best Practices or goals of the team. “Our team’s benchmark is __. You are not at the benchmark. Do you have ideas about how to get back to the benchmark?”

I feel there are some general “rules” so that neither party gets in hot water. If you are giving feedback, rely heavily on I-statements. Take ownership of the observation/thought. Also, use objective measures. Rely on data or observation. Then ask, “What do you think?” Also, tell person ahead of time that you want to talk. Don’t blindside your colleague in between meetings with helpful feedback. Instead, write or say “Let’s arrange some time to meet to talk about …” or even use the word feedback in the invitation. Finally, end with something positive. I’ve heard of something called Positive Feedback Sandwich. I’m not wild about formulas, but the goal is to end with something constructive so the relationship is maintained in a positive way.

Many thoughts. Thanks for Breaking the Frame, Alli!


Alli Polin September 10, 2014 at 12:10 am


Your comments will help a lot of people! For so many, giving feedback is an exercise in fear and as a result, they speak in generalization and oftentimes the heart of their message is lost in an attempt for a soft landing. Speaking from “I” helps a ton.

Have you seen people successfully use the approach of “let’s set up sometime to talk for feedback” (or something like that). I’ve seen it work when some more context is provided on the conversation like… don’t worry, I want to go over how your program is going. It also gives people a chance to prepare their thoughts without being blindsided. Still, I’ve seen people FREAK OUT when they think that their boss has set up a meeting to give them feedback. They worry about getting fired and all kinds of other things. My wish is that more cultures could create a culture of feedback – where observations are shared freely and in service of shared and individual success… without fear.

As for the sandwich technique, I was taught it years ago and I think that my most important take away there is to not only make feedback a time to dig into criticism, but find points of strength. Feedback should not demoralize, but instead help to build greater strength.

Great stuff! Thank you!


kelli September 5, 2014 at 6:39 pm

This was a really great post. It is interesting because your suggestion of reframing is so simple yet so powerful and easily overlooked. It is interesting how we make the feedback about us without even realizing it. When we look at it from the perspective of service, that changes everything. You also make an excellent point about assuming what others may be thinking and assuming can get us into all sorts of messes, personally and professionally. It would have been easy to think in that situation the ‘boss’ not saying anything first and then asking what you thought likely meant she was happy with the person.
Great advice here!


Alli Polin September 10, 2014 at 12:04 am

We totally make feedback about us, don’t we? Will they hate me? What will I do if they get angry? on and on… Service changes everything because it flips the entire equation. The real question is will we be able to courageously speak the truth from the place of service. I certainly hope so!

Many thanks for your comment and insights too, Kelli!


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