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Harvard Business Review Says Corporate Leaders Should “Stop Softening Tough Feedback.” But What About Non-Profits?

Published on March 5, 2021

The non-profit sector is critical to the health of our communities. Fierce work is carried out daily in the sector, ranging from poverty intervention to critical support for seniors.

But is the same fierceness and clarity warranted for having tough employee feedback conversations with the 2+ million charitable and non-profit sector employees in Canada?

The research

Recently, Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Stop Softening Tough Feedback”. In it, it argues that the common “feedback sandwich” (two pieces of positive feedback sandwiching a thick slice of criticism) can be confusing and leave the recipient feeling blindsided by a sneak attack. Authors Dane Jensen and Peggy Baumgartner explain that “it makes correcting people easier for you, but it rarely achieves the goal of helping someone improve.”

It’s true. In reality, giving feedback can get messy, for both the person offering the feedback and the recipient. The positive feedback may sandwich the criticism too well and result in the recipient gulping the whole bite down without noticing what they’re consuming. Too much criticism might make someone choke, or being handed a vague “feedback sandwich” might just leave someone confused as to what just happened.

So, how should I give direct feedback?

Jensen and Baumgartener break it down into 3 steps:

1. Describe the behaviour that you want to reinforce or correct.

Present your observations without evaluative language – e.g. “I noticed you interrupted the client twice in yesterday’s meeting” versus “you were really rude in yesterday’s client meeting”. Avoiding evaluative language helps keep the discussion focused on factual observations and the receiver from feeling judged and attacked.

2. Explain the impact of the behaviour.

People need to know what’s at stake to understand and be invested in changing. How is it impacting how they can connect and serve your clients and support their colleages? Like with describing the behaviour, make sure to continue the dialogue without evaluative language.

3. Outline what you would like them to do.

This doesn’t mean dictating someone’s every single move. Instead, you’re providing clear guidance and expectations so that others are not left guessing what you as a leader want but won’t say outright. The goal is to coach an employee on how to improve and be ready for future scenarios, not scold them for mistakes in the past.

a green speech bubble with three dots inside on a yellow background

How does giving direct tough feedback affect workplace culture? Does Giving Direct Tough Feedback Affect Workplace Culture?

It can be frightening and feel like you’re demoralizing your passionate employees if you don’t couch criticism inside nicely padded “feedback sandwiches”. But done properly, the regular practice of giving direct tough feedback respectfully and without evaluative language can actually build trust, productivity, and engagement. Frustrations over feedback being misunderstood or unclear goals can be decreased for both employees and managers. Check out our previous Innovation Hour for more practice on giving and receiving direct negative feedback.

But wait, some of you may be thinking that it’s one thing to give direct tough feedback in the private sector, as everyone knows it’s a dog eat dog world out there. Is this possible in the non-profit sector, a sector where we’re known for and take pride in having a kind and people-oriented workplace culture? YES! Here are three key reasons:

  1. They can take it! Those interesting and driven individuals who are value-oriented and want to change the world are resilient people.
  2. It is respectful to impart information in a factual, plain, and straightforward manner, so why would you invest in softening tough feedback and potentially muddling things up? Wouldn’t it be more respectful to share observations and be direct in what is expected moving forward? Some employees at non-profits are CFOs and marketing professionals. Some employees work directly with clients with mental health issues. The interesting thing about best practice is that it is successful with all individuals. Non-profit, corporate and a variety of other roles.
  3. Being an employee is often complex in the best of situations. Allow your employees to focus on their financial-management role, their trauma counselling role, or their community role, not on unclear and softened feedback on how to best perform an aspect of their role.

The non-profit sector is a leader in people-focused workplace cultures. Before it was trendy, non-profit employers have had a strong understanding of the connection between challenging work and mental health and have lead best practices for employers in this area. Further, this sector has contributed to the no-stigma mental health movement for some time.

With this said, the non-profit sector does not need to compel employers to soften tough feedback to their employees. Be bold. Respect your employees and their professionalism. Practice giving factual feedback directly without a bulky compliment sandwich, and trust in their resilience.


Alison Marshall
Client Solutions in Strategy and Leadership

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