founder stories

Give difficult feedback without being a jerk

Nothing ruins a relationship faster than giving someone rude feedback. Can you imagine being a full-time employee and your manager randomly sends you a Slack message saying,

“Sarah, the designs you’ve submitted suck and they’re also missing a dozen things. Did you even try?”

“Amir, you sent the contract to the wrong client... What the heck dude??” 

OK I’m exaggerating a little bit. However some founders give feedback to their employees in the exact same style. Trust me, I was once that employee. 😓 

Later on, I worked for other startups that gave me tough feedback in a considerate way. Instead of feeling defensive and disconnected, I internalized what they said and became a better teammate because of it. Oh, how I wish every company could be so kind!  

If you want to be one of those magical startups, you’re in luck. In this week’s episode of Uncapped Notes, Eric and Janel teach you our approach to delivering hard feedback.

Create a social contract

Before we give feedback to somebody, we want to first create a social contract. These are rules or expectations on how we want to engage with each other. The purpose is to ask permission for you to say something direct and possibly difficult.

Why does this matter? 

If you deliver hard feedback with no preparation, this will activate the medulla oblongata in the recipient’s brain, which triggers a fight-or-flight response. People in this mode won’t hear your feedback well and instead, prepare their bodies to fight back or run away. 

I’m not a neuroscientist but I do know this – we want our feedback to reach the neocortex, the part of the brain where logical reasoning takes place. If we accomplish this, we reduce the likelihood that the recipient will react with ego, anger, or fear. 

Asking permission primes the recipient to better receive the tough feedback.

Sure, they may still feel cautious, because most people don’t like receiving negative feedback at all. But because we’ve established trust, the experience feels safer, and the feedback has a higher chance of landing well.

What this looks like in practice 

Here are two examples of how to ask for permission. 

Example 1 – “Sarah / Amir, I have some awkward but important feedback to share with you. Is it ok to get this off my chest? Please assume it’s coming from a good place.”  

Example 2 – “Sarah / Amir, I have some potentially uncomfortable feedback that I’d like to share with you. Do you have a few minutes to chat outside?” 

When framed this way, they’ll likely say yes to your request. Once they agree, you can then deliver whatever uncomfortable feedback you need to say. Here are examples of what I’d say to each person’s specific issue. 

To Sarah 

“Sarah, I noticed the quality of your recent designs is lower than the previous batch that you’ve made for us. I also see some common errors that aren’t usually there. It’s unlike you to submit work that isn’t the highest quality, so I wanted to check in – is everything ok?"

This opens the door for Sarah to share anything personal or work-related that may be causing her poor performance. Once she’s shared, I can follow up with something like:

“Thank you for sharing that with me. I’d love to support you in whatever way I can. What would be most helpful to you right now, while also making sure our team has the assets they need to finish this project?”

By creating a safe space between myself and Sarah, I’m building trust and giving her an opportunity to take ownership of the situation.

To Amir

“Amir, I noticed that you sent the contract designed for Company A to Company B. This is unfortunately a big problem, because the contract contains sensitive information that shouldn’t be shared with anyone outside of Company A.

I need your help in making this right. Can you please call Company A to apologize for this mistake? And call Company B to delete that message as soon as possible?” 

Instead of making Amir feel like he’s a horrible person, I’m instead focusing the conversation on why the error is problematic. 

That knowledge will make Amir feel badly enough on his own – he doesn’t need me to remind him. 

Eric has given feedback using this structure hundreds of times. People appreciate the thought that goes behind these conversations and what happens next has always been a productive conversation.

If you need to have a difficult conversation with an employee or even a co-founder, create a social contract first before delivering uncomfortable feedback. You’ll thank us later.