Feedback plays a role in how “face”—our sense of personal dignity, pride, and self-esteem—can be lost, recovered, and honored.

One of the most powerful acts of leadership is often one of the most overlooked: providing feedback.

In my book, “Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust,” I detail how “face”—our sense of personal dignity, pride, and self-esteem—can be lost, recovered, and honored. Feedback plays a part in all three.

When leaders approach feedback thoughtfully, they inspire people to reach their highest potential. When they approach feedback carelessly—or not at all—things can unravel quickly.

Consider one of my clients, Mark.

Mark manages Joseph, one of his top salespeople. On a sales call regarding a large deal with a potential customer, Joseph got ahead of himself and committed to providing additional services that weren’t normally included. He hadn’t checked with his service department before the call.

When Mark learned of this, he told Joseph the company wasn’t prepared or able to provide the additional services he’d promised.

“In the future, you should check with the service department before offering items outside the normal scope of services,” Mark said.
Joseph was devastated. He was sure his actions jeopardized his future with the company. He took a drastic measure: He submitted his resignation.

Mark was shocked. He immediately reassured Joseph that he was doing a great job—the feedback was meant to correct a simple miscalculation. Mark assured Joseph that he appreciates his work. He asked him to stay with the company. Joseph accepted.

People often personalize negative feedback, perceiving it as an attack on their character, a loss of face. In this example, the loss was too much for Joseph to bear.

Does this mean leaders should never deliver critical, constructive feedback? Not at all. Critical feedback is crucial for growth. But it can be delivered in ways that preserve the receiver’s dignity, helping avoid reactions like Joseph’s—or lesser reactions that can build up over time, eroding confidence and face.

Tips to Keep in Mind

Here’s how to maximize the potential of feedback—and avoid its pitfalls.

Avoid blunt talk.
Some leaders think being “direct” is the best approach to delivering feedback. While authenticity is valuable, bluntness is something different. Bluntness can cause the feedback receiver to lose face.
With blunt talk, clarity and accuracy often aren’t important. The receiver’s feelings aren’t considered—the feedback giver just needs to get things off their chest. The receiver doesn’t feel respected and feels blamed or unappreciated. They put up walls, and often can’t even hear, let alone accept or process, the feedback. Sometimes, they become so resentful they don’t make the needed changes. The feedback completely backfires.

When people use blunt talk, they often don’t consider whether it’s the right time and place to deliver feedback.

Consider my client, Linda. She previously communicated exclusively through Slack. She even used it when delivering critical feedback to individual people—in full view of the entire team.
Linda thought she was being efficient, but her team grew to fear taking risks because doing so could mean making mistakes and losing face.
After realizing this, Linda started using Slack for general communication only. She delivered feedback offline (and ideally face-to-face).

Avoid safe talk.
Safe talk is the opposite of blunt talk, but equally damaging.
People use safe talk when they are uncomfortable with being direct. Instead, they drop hints. Their messages are vague and ambiguous, leaving the receiver puzzled—or in the dark. They may have intended to save face and preserve harmony, but instead, they created confusion.
Take the example of John. He leads the marketing division of a multinational firm. He manages Cory, who has excelled in his short time with the company but recently delivered two sales forecasts with inaccurate data.

Before the next forecast, John decides to review Cory’s preliminary figures alongside him. But first, he corrects mistakes in the report. John gives Cory the corrected version, telling him how much he appreciates his work. He doesn’t address the mistakes or show Cory how to fix them.

John used “safe talk.” He avoided the uncomfortable, but necessary, discussion about the errors. Instead, he assumed Cory would notice on his own. But Cory didn’t notice, and the errors continued.

Use straight talk.
This style of communicating feedback helps preserve the dignity of the receiver without sacrificing the integrity of the message.
Straight talk means communicating accurately and clearly, but in a way that makes the other person feel respected. Feedback is delivered in a private, safe environment. The content is based on facts and expectations are clear.

Let’s imagine John used straight talk with Cory.

First, John would make sure the conversation takes place privately. Then, he’d ask Cory to self-reflect about the reports. What went well? John would affirm Cory’s observations and add his own.

He then would ask Cory if he saw room for improvement. If Cory doesn’t mention the errors, John would point them out, providing specific instructions on how to fix them.

Finally, John would ask Cory to summarize what he would do differently in the future, and what he would keep the same.

Cory is left with a clear sense of what is expected of him. He also feels respected. He does not lose face.

Focus on “feedforward.”
It’s necessary to deliver feedback, but don’t stop there.
To set people up for success, take the time to coach your employees on lessons learned, and practical next steps to move things forward. In the John and Cory example, feedforward was the last step of the reimagined straight talk interaction, a collaboration on how to advance Cory’s work in the future.

Feedback focuses on the past. Feedforward focuses on the future, keeping people inspired and motivated to continue on a path to growth.

Feedback is a necessary and impactful part of leadership. Use straight talk, give positive, as well as negative feedback, including feedforward, and always keep the receiver’s dignity and face in mind. Then, feedback can become one of your most powerful tools.

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