Sugarcoating feedback is when you bury the lead underneath a pile of niceties – so much so that the main message is not actually delivered, received, or understood. Feedback sandwiches are one example of sugarcoating feedback.
Sugarcoating happens when someone wants to avoid the short-term discomfort of having a conversation, but knows the conversation needs to happen and they still want to initiate it.
The result of sugarcoating feedback, is a feedback conversation that does take place … kind of. It happens, but in such an ineffective manner, that it is even worse than avoiding the feedback entirely. Why might it be worse? Because the person who delivers the sugarcoated feedback has the illusion that the feedback conversation took place, whereas the person on the receiving end did not receive the message. This results in no learning taking place, nothing actually getting changed, continued unmet expectations, and a whole lot of frustration and resentment for the person who thinks they gave someone feedback.
Leaders with people-pleasing tendencies created this approach and know it well. They are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, so they bury the message under sugar and spice and everything nice.
The Risks of Sugarcoating Feedback
If you sugarcoat feedback, the meaning of what you are saying won’t get through and in some extreme cases, the person on the other side of the conversation will mistake it as positive feedback and continue, repeat, or even double down on the precise thing you are trying to help them avoid, overcome, or change.
I have two stories from my life that have demonstrated sugarcoating feedback that have stuck with me.
Example 1: I LOVE Your Work, But…
The first happened when I was working as head of content for a big tech company. My counterpart, VP of product, Rick, was giving me feedback on some UX language my team had created. The sugarcoating happened over the period of a few days. The first day, he came to my office and said something like, “I LOVE the new language you and your team created for the 404 pages. It really makes sense from the user’s perspective and I think if you can tweak it a bit more, if you think it needs refining, that would be cool.”
I somehow did not get the message that he and the whole team hated the messaging my team created. The same language appeared in the mockups the next day, with two minor changes.
He visited my office again. “Hey, so what else do you have in store as far as tweaking the language on those pages we discussed?” I asked him if he wanted me to change anything in particular. He danced around the subject, and kept saying, “If you think it needs to be refined.” I wasn’t getting it. I pressed, “Rick, what would you like to be different? Just let me know and we can adjust. Better now than a week from now when we don’t have the time.” He replied, “Oh sure, I really do love it, I just think you might want to consider softening the language a bit.” I thanked him, thought I knew what he meant, and worked with my team on some subtle updates.
Three days later, we were in a meeting with the Chief Product Officer, Tony, and he asked me why I hadn’t updated the copy yet. I was perplexed. I had updated the copy, to be a bit “softer.” What was the problem? He looked at me and said, “Didn’t Rick tell you to scrap the whole thing and start over? We need a different direction and we need it by the end of today.”
What happened here? Now my team and I were under pressure to produce a new angle for copy in a few hours, when we could have had the entire week to ideate and finesse, had we known. Rick had trouble giving candid feedback. The clear and kind thing to do in this case would have been to tell it to me straight, and as soon as possible.
Example 2: Maybe … If You Want …
Another example happened to me at Physical Therapy last week. I was with a new PT, and she was giving me exercises to rehab my knee. She kept instructing me to “Move your knee to the right, if you want,” and “Maybe do 10 reps on each side, if that works for you,” and “If you want to do another set, you can.”
I kept thinking, “What I want is for my knee to get better! Tell me exactly what I need to do to get better.” When I asked her if my form on a particular exercise looked right, she would say, “Sure, you can do it that way if you want.”
I was so confused by her ambiguous language. I wanted clear direction since I had no idea what muscles to activate, where to lean, and how many reps to do. I left confused and frustrated.
The moral of both stories is this: People want to get it right, generally. I know I wanted to get the copy right and I certainly wanted to do my rehab exercises in a way that would lead me to recovery. You don’t give people a chance to get it right if you sugarcoat.
4 Common Reasons Leaders Sugarcoat Messages
Why do some leaders sugarcoat their feedback and communication? There are countless nuanced reasons for this, but here are the four most common reasons.
- When trust is missing in a relationship.
This can work in a number of ways. If you are fearful of retaliation or consequences in any way, that fear may be the reason you are afraid to speak up or deliver difficult feedback to someone, leading you to sugarcoat the message. This may be pointing to a problem in the relationship or an underlying problem in the culture or team dynamic. If you don’t trust the person you are speaking to will receive the message in the way it was intended – with positive intent – there is something underlying that needs to be cultivated in the relationship.
- When a leader’s people-pleasing tendencies are too strong.
As a leader, you have a responsibility to do the right thing, support people in their development, and help the team reach organizational goals. You mustn’t put your need to be liked ahead of your need to do the right thing. If you can set aside your need to make people like you, the people pleaser within you will likely hit the road. Plus, people will appreciate you and like you more in the long run if you’re honest, direct, and generous with your communication.
- When a leader lacks confidence.
If you are a leader who has a habit of sugarcoating messages, take a look at your self-confidence overall. Do you have a habit of second-guessing your opinions and decisions? Do you trust yourself and your judgment enough to take a stand? Are you comfortable sharing your opinions, thoughts, and perspectives out loud? Without confidence, the important leadership skill of saying what needs to be said can go unchecked.
- When a leader over focuses on the relationship, at the cost of the task.
Relationships are everything in leadership, and I often say that you should prioritize relationships over tasks, generally. But progress toward the task at hand is also important. You must balance relationships with tasks from day to day and moment to moment. Many times, these two goals seem to be in conflict with one another. However, the truth is that you can deepen relationships with candor even better than you can by trying to protect them with sugarcoating.
Each of these four underlying reasons for sugarcoating feedback makes it difficult for a leader to speak up, and sugarcoating makes it nearly impossible for anyone to course correct.
If you have a habit of sugarcoating feedback, now you know it is not a kind or effective approach. Sugarcoating feedback only leads to frustration and confusion on both sides.
Next time you are sitting down to give someone feedback, ask yourself one simple question to become a more effective communicator:
Is there a more direct way to say this?
For further reading about delivering feedback in effective ways, read about The Collaborative Feedback Framework, a feedback framework that helps you find the intersection between candor and care in your communication.
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