The Art of Effective Feedback

Great leaders are more than just honest, says emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Ken was a mid-level manager at a recruitment firm. Folks saw Ken as a “good guy.” He was well-liked by his employees and on good terms with upper-management. His team felt comfortable confiding in him; they often used his open-door policy to share their personal problems.

When Ken got word from upper-management that his team brought in the lowest numbers that quarter, he immediately knew the cause. Caitlin—previously the team’s top-earner—had been off her game for months. Her father’s poor health had caused her to miss work and diminished her productivity and focus in the office. Ansh’s work had also been suffering. Ken knew Ansh had been through a break-up recently and wasn’t taking it well.

In both instances, Ken hadn’t interfered. He knew the company’s bottom-line was being affected, but his empathy for Caitlin and Ansh kept him from giving them critical feedback, crucial for getting them back on track. Ken simply hoped their lackluster results would improve with time. They didn’t. And Ken’s reputation at the firm suffered.

We often talk about leaders who lack emotional intelligence, but a distortion in EI can also go too far in a leader. Empathy is a critical competency for understanding others’ points of view and finding common ground with people whose experiences differ greatly from our own. But great leaders also balance their empathy with strengths in other competencies.

Leaders who have a mindset that empathy does not allow needed feedback may have deficits in related EI competencies, such as conflict management. Ken’s empathy made him well-liked, but his misinterpretation of a leader’s role and what empathy means led him to avoid tough decision-making as well as not giving negative feedback.

In her work on teams, my colleague Vanessa Druskat found that leaders who balance their competency in empathy with emotional self-control excel at giving constructive feedback. These leaders also foster norms around honest communication, yielding teams that openly address problems and create goal-oriented solutions.

Emotional self-control enables leaders to manage their emotions and impulses. You can remain calm even under stress or during a crisis. By finding this emotional balance, you can utilize your empathy in a productive way.

It’s important to be attuned to your employees and to have an understanding of their lives outside the office. But when you need to deliver tough feedback, or make a difficult decision, keeping your own disturbing emotions in balance keeps them from clouding your best judgement.

Great leaders have strengths not only in emotional intelligence but also in abilities and skills like integrity and strategic thinking. They apply these abilities as needed, based on factors like the situation and current objectives. A daily team meeting may primarily require integrity, empathy, and inspirational leadership. Yet when faced with the potential loss of a major client, other abilities like influence, strategy, and determination would come to the forefront. By balancing an array of skills, great leaders prepare themselves for a multitude of circumstances and challenges. And with a clear vision and set of values, they can remain true to themselves along the way. 

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.