If you’re an educational leader, you’re probably not using candid feedback as often or as well as you should be. That’s as candid as we can be about it. And, mostly, it’s not your fault. Candor is a skill. It takes practice. It requires training. And, it’s not typically taught in educational leadership programs nor is it regularly discussed in our field. For this reason, coupled with the brain-science regarding our fear of giving feedback in the first place, candor is left out of the conversation when we work to identify ways to make progress in our schools. 

This lack of candid feedback in education creates what we refer to as a “culture of nice,” which ironically limits transparency and weakens trust. Leaders need continuous reminders about Covey’s 13 High Trust Behaviors, which include “straight talk” and “clarify expectations,” because we paradoxically associate some of what improves, like dissonance and disagreements, trust as offensive or harmful. Our misconceptions around how we develop meaningful relationships is precisely what prevents a deep and purposeful connection with people. In other words, we choose “nice” over “direct” because we think that it will lead to a future collegial space where we can be direct, and that time never arrives. 

There is a solution to this problem. And, if you’ve read any of our other work at theschoolhouse302.com, you know that we believe that leadership might be complex but it doesn’t have to be complicated. We’ve distilled a lack of candor into 9 common issues that leaders have when giving feedback. In our book, Candid and Compassionate Feedback, we call them the “candor cancellations” because they literally cancel candor from our conversation, leaving the receiver with little or nothing to go on to make progress. We sabotage ourselves, and don’t even realize it. And, now, when many teachers and leaders are working virtually, the candor problem is exacerbated.

Here, we provide insight into four of our nine candor cancellations, what they are, why they plague us, and how to move beyond them. But first, let’s answer this question: what is candid and compassionate feedback? Candid feedback is clear and directional communication about performance. It’s open and transparent conversation about practices that are worthy of praise or that need to change. It also demonstrates compassion because the clarity that the feedback provides helps others to develop skills, and it assumes, first-and-foremost, that everyone wants to improve and that we care enough to help them get better. Let’s take a deeper look into four of the cancellations from the book.  

The Holder Backer

What It Is…

The first archetype of a leader who doesn’t use candor is The Holder Backer. You know someone like this, and you may even suffer from it. This is the leader who fails to say what she is thinking. And, we know that she’s thinking something that she’s not saying. It’s totally detectable that she’s holding back. Over time, we lose trust in this person and confidence because we want her to share her thoughts, especially about our performance, but she doesn’t. She can’t. 

Why It Happens…

The Holder Backer typically suffers from some level of imposter syndrome. They doubt and question the value of their feedback. They’re afraid to say what they think for fear that it’s not accurate or invalid. In secondary schools, for example, it is very common for an administrator to supervise a subject matter that she did not teach; in this case, she may want to see a structural change to the lesson delivery in a math classroom, but since she taught science she feels like an imposter. The result is that she holds back, and that thwarts progress. 

How to Fix It…

We often think that the antidote to The Holder Backer problem is that they should just “let it rip” or “be more direct.” But that doesn’t work to solve the feelings and emotions that The Holder Backer has about possibly being wrong. That’s why the fix is to lean on data, quantitative and qualitative, and to observe the practice in question as often as possible. The first part of the solution helps with imposter syndrome because it’s no longer your opinion about what needs to be changed but rather the poor results that the practice is yielding or the positive impact that the desired change shows through evidence and research. 

The second part of the solution solves the problem with the possibility of being wrong about what you saw if you’ve now seen it happen two, three, four, or more times. Making a judgement call about a practice when you’ve seen it occur only a minimal number of times isn’t fair anyway. Use data, research, and visit often to combat imposter syndrome, and it drifts away so that your feedback can be caring, firm, and direct.

The Ambiguoust 

What It Is…

We all know someone who talks and talks during meetings, but when they’re done talking we have no idea what they said or meant. Making it worse, The Ambiguoust is often verbose, going on-and-on about seemingly nothing. They typically do this when they have some critical information to deliver, but we never understand the actual point that they’re trying to make. 

Why It Happens…

People who construct an unclear message, especially when they need to inform the team of a change that needs to occur for progress to happen, do so because they fear conflict. They actually intend to deliver a clear message right up until the words start to come out of their mouth and then they shift to the use of flowery language and qualifying statements. Lencioni tells readers that fear of conflict arises when leaders don’t realize that conflict can be healthy. And, once we see that overcoming conflict is the challenge required for change, we need to confront our fear and quit being ambiguous to clarify our message for the receiver. 

How To Fix It…

Because The Ambiguoust gets lost with words and doesn’t make her intended point, the fix is to write down and enumerate the feedback. Instead of allowing the conversation to be subjective and meander around due to a fear of offending the other party, enumerating the objective feedback in a clear way provides a reference for leaders when the fear sets in. In any feedback session, even if you’re not an Ambiguoust, the conversation can get off topic. For The Ambiguoust, and any leader for that matter, keeping a written list of the most important areas for feedback is critical to effective delivery. 

The Excuser 

What It Is…

The third archetype of a leader who doesn’t use candor is The Excuser. You can probably think of someone who has an excuse for everything under the sun, but be careful that you don’t also fall prey to this tactic. The Excuser blames an undesired behavior or outcome on something, anything, other than the real issue at hand. They are so good at it that they convince themselves, the person they should be providing with feedback, and others that the excuse is real. They reinforce negative behaviors by excusing them as the fault of something out of our control rather than taking responsibility as a leader and confronting and altering bad behavior or other unproductive aspects of our work. 

Why It Happens…

The primary reason why leaders fall into The Excuser category is lack of commitment. This might stem from a range of chronic problems, from years of being micromanaged to a leadership skill deficit to having lost hope themselves. The Excuser is deft at seeing everything except the true problem that they need to solve. And, even when they know what the problem is, they quickly revert to an excuse that seems to envelope the situation. 

How To Fix It…

The way to get The Excuser to provide candid feedback in meetings and through feedback loops is to practice having them tell the whole story by moving beyond surface level conversations. The best support for The Excuser is a coach who is skilled at asking questions. One strategy, as an example, is the 5 Whys technique. Used to get at the root of a problem, this tool requires The Excuser to move to a deeper understanding. By the third why, The Excuser begins to realize that her initial response is just an excuse. Once The Excuser understands the bigger-picture problem, they have to commit to giving candid feedback so that it can be solved. 

The Generalist 

What It Is…

This fourth candor cancellation is one of our favorites. The Generalist is a close relative to The Ambiguoust. While The Ambiguoust might talk us to death using circular thinking that never pins down the problem, The Generalist is too broad, always having thirty-thousand feet conversations whereby we never know the details of the issue. You can imagine The Generalist who wants more collaborative structures as a classroom strategy but never says anything beyond the need for student talk-time. The who, the how, the when, or even the why never even get discussed. You can push The Generalist for more specificity but you usually end up speculating, fishing for answers with, at best, yes or no responses. 

Why It Happens…

The Generalist lacks certainty and sometimes confidence. They don’t feel comfortable telling others what they want or what needs to change. They run meetings that lack direction, and they never seem to reach their goals. The Generalist might be in a leadership position, but they often have a one-dimensional view of their role, least of which is a change-agent. They don’t use candid feedback because they are not dialed into the organization’s vision and core values. Worse yet, The Generalist’s biggest problem isn’t their lack of candor with corrective action, it’s that they’re also too general with their praise. Their words never include more than “great work” and their messaging as a whole simply lacks authenticity. 

How To Fix It…

The Generalist can be helped through the use of sentence stems, especially stems that are tailored to the vision and core values of the organization. The simplest version is “The purpose of this meeting is to…” or “The purpose of my feedback for you today is for you to…” They almost can’t avoid naming the specific need when they go through this exercise. Although a candor coach can help, The Generalist can learn this on his own over time with practice. If not, the people who work for him will get so sick of the bland nature of their discussions that they will naturally begin to ask for the purpose of the meeting, conversation, or feedback session.

Candor At Work 

Candor works. That’s the bottom line. It helps to build trust, and it moves the work forward, faster and with clarity. When people are clear about the changes that you want them to make, it’s far more likely that they’ll meet the expectation. But, if you hold back, create ambiguity, make excuses, or generalize the circumstances, you miss out on making the progress needed to be successful. 

With remote work feedback, we fear that the candor cancellations will only get worse. We’ve already seen mixed messages, the fear of conflict, and a lack of commitment (too name a few) as problems in the remote setting. Candid feedback is more important than ever, and if these four common problems resonated with you, we present five more in our book, Candid and Compassionate Feedback. At the heart of school improvement and a thriving workplace is an honest open conversation about getting better each day. Our clarity is our compassion, and it’s our hope that every leader chooses to practice candid feedback at every turn. 

Joe & T.J.

PS … Joe and TJ at The SchoolHouse 302, were two of the most popular guests on the Better Leaders Better Schools’ podcast. 

Check out our episode here.

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