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Author Kryss Shane: How To Give Honest Feedback Without Being Hurtful

Choose Your Platform — Cameras and audio sessions are great for so many aspects of remote work. However, they can be difficult for delivering difficult feedback. An employee may not want to be on camera when hearing criticism as they may struggle with maintaining visible composure. Another employee may want the feedback in writing so […]

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Choose Your Platform — Cameras and audio sessions are great for so many aspects of remote work. However, they can be difficult for delivering difficult feedback. An employee may not want to be on camera when hearing criticism as they may struggle with maintaining visible composure. Another employee may want the feedback in writing so they can review it and process it after they have initially heard it. When giving feedback, consider the best format for your employee. It may be a call without a camera in which you also email your notes from that meeting. It may be a recorded call with the recording sent to the employee so they can review what was said. Think through the format you use so that the focus is on the information exchange, not on whether they can maintain a neutral face or remember every word.


As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kryss Shane.

Named by The New York Times and many national and international platforms as America’s go-to Leading LGBT Expert, Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW (she/her) has 25+ years of experience guiding the world’s top leaders in business, education, and community via individual, small group, and full-staff trainings. She is known for making each organization’s specific Diversity and Inclusion needs become more manageable, approachable, and actionable. She is also the author of “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” the first book of its kind to guide educators, administrators, and school staff to become able and empowered to make their schools more LGBT+ inclusive.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

It seems that most people who work in mental healthcare have a personal story or experience that draws them to this field. I’m someone who was always the support person and the go-to person for my friends, but I never considered making a career of it until much later. I was always a believer in equality, and this led me to begin to become mindful of ways in which minority groups weren’t represented in my middle school and high school textbooks and in the media, I was enjoying. This led me to speak up a lot in class, asking questions that many teachers had no answers to because their education also lacked inclusion. As my recognition of this problem grew, I began to realize this problem in my community and in families. This led me to earn my bachelor’s degree at The Ohio State University in Human Development and Family Sciences.

Simultaneously, I was volunteering a ton with LGBT+ organizations. Over time, my volunteer work grew, and many began asking why I didn’t do this as my profession. It hadn’t dawned on me before then that I could. This realization sent me into my first master’s degree program, where I graduated from Barry University in Social Work, where I focused my studies on LGBT+ issues. As years passed though, I was always bothered by how often textbooks in schools still lack representation of marginalized groups. This led me to go back to school, where I earned my 2nd master’s degree, from Western Governors University in Education, specializing in Curriculum and Instruction. I am currently working toward my doctorate in Educational Leadership from University of the Cumberlands, where I get to bring my LGBT+ work through the lens of leaders in our world, thus making me better at educating others and teaching them how to improve their allyship and activism. I am also working in undergraduate and graduate social work departments Columbia University and Brandman University, and writing articles, book chapters, and books that focus on the minority populations that have been too long left out. That includes “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” the first book of its kind to guide educators, administrators, and school staff to become able and empowered to make their schools more LGBT+ inclusive, I am also hearing that many parents and those who work with or help raise youth are also seeing the book as a way to become better at helping to raise children who are anti-racist and anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My company, ThisIsKryss.com stands out because it stands up. So often, companies are afraid that being heavily focused in a controversial topic can make them too polarizing or cause them to lose business. I have always seen it as an opportunity to support what matters most. As a result, I’ve never hidden what I believe or what my company stands for. I’ve also never been shy about offering to educate someone who sends me hate mail, nor have I been shy about being unwilling to entertain ignorance with becoming angry or with investing time into their goal of trying to scare me away from my work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I first began my work, it was still socially acceptable enough to heckle during conversations or trainings on LGBT+ people. It was still socially acceptable enough to make sexist comments to young women on stages. As a result, many of my first times on stage training and educating were met with loud homophobic and transphobic comments from the back of the room. It was also very common for men to ask about my genitalia or my bra size or whether I was single. I became very agile in redirecting conversations and at ascertaining when to address behaviors and when not to give them more oxygen. Now though, it is becoming less common for the comments to occur and, when they do, it is very likely that someone else in the room will shut the behavior down before I need to say a word. I think it really speaks to the learning that some are doing as well as the changes in whether people are willing to be a silent bystander to inappropriate language and behaviors. Though those behaviors are never acceptable, I always end up just a tad grateful for those moments, as it reminds me how far we’ve come in our society!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The biggest mistake I used to make is that I used to be really afraid of other speakers! I would read the bios and academic backgrounds of other speakers at events or of the C-suite at companies I was speaking to and I would become completely intimidated. It made me question myself and it made me become smaller both in my posture and in my literal and figurative voice. I had to learn to overcome that by getting to know others and to recognize that my work and my experience also held value.

In terms of funniest mistake, I’ve had a few situations where I’ve completely “fan girled” out when meeting someone whose work really inspires me. Admittedly though, this isn’t something I’ve outgrown. I still find it really exciting to meet someone whose work is pretty incredible. It most recently happened with Sally Hogshead. She’s a huge well-known speaker and I’d considered her to be someone whose events I would attend “someday.” Not as in an actual time on a calendar but in that big metaphoric *makes a rainbow gesture with her hands* someday. Someday when I was wealthy enough or someday when I was big enough in my career or someday when I was… something enough. Anyway, when my first book The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” came out, a dear friend, Jeanette Jennings (from TLC’s “I Am Jazz”) posted about it on her social media. Not long after, Jeanette emailed me and asked if she could give my info to a friend who wanted to get in touch. I agreed because any friend of hers is a friend of mine. It turns out, the friend was Sally! She suggested a phone call. Here I was, after years of admiring her, getting to have a one-on-one call. A week later, there I was, totally wasting the professional opportunity because my personal self was so totally geeking out over meeting her. (Luckily, Sally is actually a seriously awesome person and she was quite polite about my fan girling!)

What it made me realize though is that this isn’t so much about having to learn to outgrow or make up for funny mistakes, it’s about owning them! I’ve actually had some people get a little extra animated when talking with me and I never find it funny or embarrassing, I find it incredibly flattering and I am so grateful to know that my work impacts them. As a result, I have stopped trying to pretend not to be incredibly excited when meeting others!

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout happens when there is no balance. That tends to occur when employees do not believe they can take a breath without letting their boss down. I always encourage leaders to be mindful of the long-term goals (which can’t happen if employees burn out). I also recommend that they model behaviors for their employees. As a result, some encourage their staff to put up an out of office message every day at 6 and that no emails are expected to be responded to before the next workday… and then they model that behavior. Others reward staff with healthy snacks in the office to ensure no one works through meals. I’ve met some who have been at the forefront of working from home programs in the company because they know it can benefit some employees to have flexible schedules or to work without a commute. Some of my favorite ideas come from ways in which leaders offer trainings and education during working hours with meals provided so that employees can continue to grow their skills without sacrificing mealtime or personal time.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I am currently working on my doctorate in Educational Leadership, so this feels a bit to me like a paper I could write! I hope my professors won’t be too upset with me for combining their lessons and merging them with my own beliefs here… to me, leadership is the recognition of one’s own privileges and the realization of one’s own power paired with a goal or mission, explained using clear language in a way that encourages and inspires others to participate in working together toward success.

Leadership is not about who can get their name in the papers, it’s not about who can sucker others into following blindly. It’s not about manipulation. Leadership is what happens when a person inspires others to recognize their own power, which results in a collective movement toward change. We see this in the Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter movement. It isn’t about one person and millions of followers, it’s about many people who are amplifying one another, who are demanding justice, and who are letting every Black and Brown person know that there is safety in numbers, that they are not alone if they want to take to the streets to fight to change a systemic problem that puts their lives in jeopardy. This movement is not successful because one person uses threats or harm to force others to do their bidding, it is successful because it supports many and it allows participants to feel their importance and to use their voices and their power to join a collective demand that all people be treated appropriately and that all systems that undermine this be dismantled.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I find that the stress dissipates when I am prepared. I am also a big fan of self-bribes. What I mean is that, before an event or talk, I gather the information from reputable sources. If it is a decision being made, I may have meetings or conversations with others to gain a fuller perspective. I also journal, which helps me to process my thoughts and helps to hold strong to my sense of self. As for self-bribes, I also like to find something to plan ahead in what I will get to do or have once the stressful situation has ended. Sometimes it’s a slice of pizza, sometimes it’s a break with a few episodes of Golden Girls, other times it’s a phone date with a friend or putting all technology on silent and just snuggling with the dog for 20 minutes. Knowing what I get to earn and being able to plan for the enjoyment of it can also help to remind me that my whole life is not forever tied to this upcoming big stressful moment. After the big event or moment, I then get to reward myself immediately, which lets the stress and anxiety dissipate before taking on the next task at hand!

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

I’ve always been a leader… even in preschool, the teachers noted that I was easy to be around if the others were playing the game I wanted to play. *laughs* It admittedly took time to learn how to lead without forcing everyone to do what I wanted how I wanted. Over time, the more secure I became in my knowledge, the easier it was to ask for guidance and advice in areas where they were stronger than me, including when the expert was someone whom I was leading. I also became better in being willing to recognize when I was wrong. This let the staff know both that being wrong was not a career-ender and it let them see that I was working to become better both at my work and at leading them. It resulted in them being more willing to share insights and to ask for my help and it caused them to offer me more grace as I learned and improved over time.

A great example of this was during my time as the Director of a social service agency in New York City. As part of the role, I was a leader both of the location and its staff, as well as volunteers, but it was also the very first time I was supervising social work student interns. I had a few months of notice before they began. Without sounding egotistical, I was absolutely the best intern supervisor who ever existed ever… until 2 minutes into their first day, when I handed out my perfectly organized binder full of perfectly crafted assignments and I watched their eyes grow wide. I realized instantly that I had completely forgotten that their internship with me was not the entirety of their lives and that I had created something gorgeous in theory that was overwhelming and unrealistic in practice. I went from being 100% certain of my awesomeness to completely aware that I needed to seek out people with experience and to learn from their greatness before I would be able to grow in my role.

I found that, because I was willing to own my mistake, it became easier for the students to acknowledge their own missteps. When it became clear to them that an error did not mean they lost my respect, it became easier for them to come to me and share their struggles so we could find a solution together.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Feedback is really difficult for many to give or to receive; no one wants to do poorly, and no one wants to make someone feel bad. However, without feedback, it is impossible for either side to see progress or to measure success. I think about being in school. I never wanted to receive a bad grade but being graded on assignments gave me insight into where I was succeeding and where I needed to focus more work or seek tutoring. In the workplace, there is often little to no mandatory feedback. It can result in a lack of awareness when there is success or when there are problems. By having a feedback plan and by creating an opportunity for honesty and growth, the leader can support the employee and the employee has a better idea of where they stand and of how they can excel.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Assume the Best — Often, as leaders, we can envision what we want, and we delegate to others because we cannot do everything ourselves. As a result, we can see it clearly when an employee’s actions are not what we envisioned. It can be easy to feel annoyed or to think that an employee who makes frequent mistakes is doing so on purpose. However, this is rarely the case. Most times, employees want to do well, and they are doing things as they believe you want them. When you begin by assuming the best of them, it can help to calm your own emotions and it can inform how you address situations with employees.

2. Choose Your Platform – Cameras and audio sessions are great for so many aspects of remote work. However, they can be difficult for delivering difficult feedback. An employee may not want to be on camera when hearing criticism as they may struggle with maintaining visible composure. Another employee may want the feedback in writing so they can review it and process it after they have initially heard it. When giving feedback, consider the best format for your employee. It may be a call without a camera in which you also email your notes from that meeting. It may be a recorded call with the recording sent to the employee so they can review what was said. Think through the format you use so that the focus is on the information exchange, not on whether they can maintain a neutral face or remember every word.

3. Choose your timing – It can be easy for a leader to become frustrated when an employee is making mistakes. Sometimes, feedback can occur amidst that frustration. It can then result in the employee feeling like their boss thinks horribly of them. Instead, make sure to be in a space of calm within yourself so you don’t take frustrations about the situation (or about other situations or people) out on an employee.

4. Give Space – Not everyone processes instantly. When giving feedback, let the person hear it and receive it and take time with it. Maybe this means they need to listen to feedback now and meet with you to discuss it tomorrow, after they’ve had time to absorb what you said. Giving them the time to hear you and to process their emotions about it can give them time to come back to you for a real conversation rather than to respond in a space of feeling defensive or hurt. You can also begin the meeting by explaining that you are sharing some concerns and that you would like to share them now, give the employee time to process them, and that you want to regroup and discuss this tomorrow morning. This lets the employee know that they can listen without being expected to immediately respond to something that may come as a total surprise to them.

5. Look in the Mirror – Many think that leadership is easy because it means just telling others what to do. A good leader sees that there is a way to do this with kindness and guidance and transparency and a clear mission. A great leader sees that they cannot lead well unless they continue to work to improve their own leadership skills. Before, during, and after giving feedback, it is vital that a leader checks in with themselves (and with a mentor or superior) to be sure that they are continuing to improve their own skills both in general and as a result of what they have learned through each experience of providing feedback to someone they lead.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I’m a big fan of email because I love to write and because I love that writing is something a person can refer back to. However, writing comes without the nuances of non-verbal communication the way voice or facial cues can give. I am a believer in giving compliments in writing as quickly as possible after the good thing happened. I am also a big believer in taking time between writing a criticizing email and sending it. (Tip, don’t put the recipient’s email address into the email until you are ready to send it; this prevents accidental sending!) With a critique, I recommend journaling or drafting first. Figure out what went wrong and why, as well as what is within their control and what they should have known. This helps to eliminate muddy directions or blaming an employee for something outside their job or task description. Consider what you could or should have done differently and be willing to take ownership. Also, consider how you want the situation to occur differently. This way, when you write the email, you are clear in identifying the problem(s), explaining why they were the responsibility of the person, talk about future prevention of a repeat situation, and you can outline what you need the recipient to do either now or in the future. This offers clear information that is focused and direct and allows both sides to refer back to the email in the future, either to double check the work beforehand next time or in case the problem repeats.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

As I talked about earlier, when it comes to an incident, this really depends on the situation and on the emotions involved. If you are angry, it is probably not a great time to talk with your staff. If it is emergent and cannot wait, you may not have the luxury of time. However, in most cases, it is appropriate for the situation to end, for everyone to separate and cool down, and for a leader to become clearer in the feedback they want to give once they assess the situation and the problems that occurred. As for general feedback, I think monthly or quarterly meetings with staff can be quite helpful in assessing their growth and helping them to understand where they are successful and where they need improvement so that no one is surprised by a lack of progress or when someone wants to submit for a raise or promotion.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

A great boss is someone who is transparent in their goals, who is open with their support, who is empathetic without being a pushover, who is accepting of employees for who they are, and who recognizes that their work is to make their employees successful.

I am part of numerous networking groups and there have been many stories shared during the time of the pandemic. I have found it has been consistent across industries that the bosses others have bragged about have been those who worked with their employees to adjust to covid-19 stressors, those who were non-judgmental of their employees needs, and those who focused on checking in with employees with offers to help sort through any problems. I think it speaks volumes about how important it is that those being led feel encouraged by and important to their leader and that taking a moment to be kind and to show compassion matters much more to most employees than having all of the answers or than making periodic mistakes.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are in the middle of a time when Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter is growing with each passing day. There is absolutely nothing I could create or aspire to create that would do more good to the most amount of people than the ending of systemic racism and systemic transphobia. At best, I aspire to encourage others to become more mindful and more willing to become educated on how to bring inclusion and affirmation into the lives and worldviews of our youth. My book The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” was written with this goal in mind and we are seeing each day how leaders in this critical crucial life-altering life-saving movement are working not only to change the status quo, but to encourage us all to teach our children better so that they become adults who do better.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid. -Audre Lorde

For me, this reminds me to use every position of privilege I have (whether by luck or having been earned) as a way to reach my goals or the goals of those I am leading. It reminds me that, though I may sometimes struggle or fear getting leadership exactly right or hitting every goal exactly perfect, I cannot and should not be rooted in fear. It reminds me that my fear cannot be the reason why I lose vision or why I do not act.

Being a leader is really difficult and sometimes it is scary to know how many are depending on you to know what you are doing and to know how to reach the goal. By acknowledging the reality of the fear and understanding why the fear is not the priority or the most important part of the work, I can be a more successful leader, which means those I am leading can be more successful too.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website: ThisIsKryss.com

Twitter: @itsKryss

Instagram: @ThisIsKryss

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kryssshane/

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