“Direct and honest feedback” With Rachel Shackleton

Feedback very often reflects a company’s values, such as openness, integrity, honesty, transparency, teamwork and so on. If you as a leader are unable to demonstrate coherence with the company values and give direct and honest feedback, you are not leading by example and in effect are violating those values. Therefore, what message are you […]

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Feedback very often reflects a company’s values, such as openness, integrity, honesty, transparency, teamwork and so on. If you as a leader are unable to demonstrate coherence with the company values and give direct and honest feedback, you are not leading by example and in effect are violating those values. Therefore, what message are you giving out to your team members?

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

Rachel Shackleton, founder of Green Key Personal Development is a business trainer with over 30 years training experience providing solutions in leadership, communication, and customer excellence. Founder of a successful training business in Russia with 25 employees, working with local and international companies. A pioneer in the Russian market in learning and development she trained her own team to give and receive honest and open feedback, as well teams in her client’s organizations.

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?

Ateach stage in my life, I have always known what I wanted to do. It is almost as if someone or something has a plan for me and all I have to do is take the opportunities that are presented. This does not take away from the needed hard work to make the most of each opportunity. When referring to the idea of “getting started”, I am the third born of five siblings and had definitely “started” on being born into this world. A super-fast birth in partnership with my mother, set me up perfectly, for my life ahead.

At 17, working as a waitress in a restaurant in a large hotel put me in the limelight to be plucked out by two of my regulars and recruited as the first management trainee for then Southern Sun hotels, now Sun International. At some point my career in hotels took me to St Petersburg in Russia and again a perfect opportunity presented itself for me to start a company specializing in training and development. The soon to be clients explained that they could not pay me “black” and had to pay me “white”. This posed no challenge. I called a close friend who knew exactly how to register a company and 48 hours later I was in business. From that point on it was a journey of successes and failures. Not that there is such a thing as failure, only learning. As there were no other training companies at that time in the Russian market, together with my excellent, talented and fun team, we became pioneers in many ways. After 20 years, I returned to the UK and founded Green Key Personal Development and Green Key Health.

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

This is the question that you always dread being asked when you are attending a job interview for a position that you desperately want. Not because you are without a job, but because the company interviewing you is well-renowned, the job itself is just what you are looking for and has opportunities for growth. Green Key stands out because we put the customer at the heart of what we do. This combined with 30+ years international training experience in many industries as well as our ability to adapt to changing circumstances and needs, means we focus on continuous improvement in order to ensure we always add value to our clients’ business.

Whenever a client comes with a new request, however challenging it might be, the answer is always “Yes”. Then we work out how to do that, assuming of course that it is a request that relates to learning and development of others. It is because our clients challenge us in this way, that our product line, methods of delivery and overall approach are continuously improving.

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

There are so many stories, it is difficult to choose just one. As further proof of there being an overall “divine” plan, I got the opportunity to go to Jamaica in place of my boss. Even though the project was only for three months, I decided then and there that I was not coming back to the UK. I packed everything up, gave away my life’s possessions and flew to Jamaica with one suitcase, for what led to an amazing job with Super Clubs, initially with Couples in Ocho Rios, followed by Jamaica Jamaica and Boscobel Beach. I worked with some fantastic people, learned a lot, worked hard and played hard. At the end of three years, there was no possibility to renew my work permit again and with sadness, I left to return to the UK, only to very quickly be flown out to St Lucia to set up all the training systems and train the team for a new luxury villa hotel close to Rodney Bay. The design is separate villas built into different parts of the hillside, each with its own sea view and often swimming pool. The central hub where reception, the bar and restaurants are located is for some villas a good 10-minute walk uphill and therefore the hotel provides transportation for those that need it with golf buggies.

I remember being in the middle of customer service training for a mixed group of waiting staff, housekeepers, front desk receptionists and bell boys, the owner had just entered the room and was standing quietly at the back. Bear in mind that these new recruits had never worked in a hotel before. I asked the question, “How will you take the guest and their luggage from reception to their villa after checking in?” A very proud and serious voice answered, “In a wheel barrow!”.

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?

This mistake, if it can be called that, because what you do not know, you do not know! On this occasion my finance director (required by law in Russia) was discussing the month end figures with me, and she said with some concern, “Rachel, we have a cash flow problem?”. I listened with interest and said I would look into it. Little did she know, that I hadn’t a clue what she was referring to. Once she had gone home, I called a friend who I knew would be able to explain this cash flow phenomenon. I asked him directly “Steve, what is cash flow?” Hesitatingly he replied, “Why do you ask?” Repeating the comment from the finance director, there was a distinct silence, before he said, “Rachel, I think it would be a good idea if you came over to my office right now and I will explain cash flow to you?” Needless to say, on putting the phone down, this was before mobile phones, he had successfully transferred his apparent nervousness over to me!

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

Burnout is something that I learned the hard way, and now know the signs and symptoms of my body when it is warning me about the dangers of pushing too hard, taking too much on and not having adequate down-time. My advice is:

  • Ensure your employees enjoy what they are doing and have fun doing it as this makes the work-load easier.
  • Foster an atmosphere of teamwork, trust and support as well as injecting all-important humor which is fantastic for breaking tension.
  • Stretch team members to create challenge, so that they learn and grow. But, at the same time as the leader, know their limits to avoid over stretching them and to stop them over stretching themselves.
  • Educate them on how to take care of themselves through proper hydration and a nutrient-rich diet that is eaten away from their desks and computer screens. Encourage them to take some form of exercise every day, even if it is only for 20 minutes in the lunch break to get out for some fresh air.
  • Know your employees well so that you are able to see and hear when something is not right with each individual. Open up a conversation to invite them to share what might be bothering them.
  • Encourage them to leave the office on time to pursue other interests in life and spend quality time with their families and friends.
  • Ensure they take their holidays.
  • Lead by example.

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

Leadership is a set of behaviours that inspires people to love what they do and consequently give of their best all the time.

The best example of such a leader for me was and still is Nelson Mandela. Madiba as he was fondly known had vision. He could see what he wanted for his country, South Africa. Despite personal hardships enforced on him by the then apartheid regime, he kept his vision in mind and kept going step by step and above all he never used violence, nor would he support others who did. He made friends with his enemies, and from a position of imprisonment inspired those who supported him and believed in the same vision, to never give up. He had the courage to speak his truth, never covering it up for a better version or for his own personal gain. Respected and loved by so many he was a gift both to his country and to this world as a whole.

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?

Stress management for me personally is something that has to be done on a daily basis, rather than in response to a high stakes meeting, talk or decision. When practicing every day, you re-wire your neural pathways to respond differently, when for most of us the fight or flight stress response would kick in. This does not mean that sometimes I do not feel overwhelmed and stressed, but this is the exception rather than the rule. My daily routine includes waking at approximately 6am, drinking a glass of warm water with the juice of ½ lemon squeezed in it and a pot of green tea. I drink both these whilst having quiet reading time followed by 15 minutes of simple stretching and yoga and 20–30 minutes meditation. Sometimes I meditate to someone like Mooji, Joe Dispenza or Eckhart Tolle. Other times I meditate by focusing on my breathing to calm my mind. Meditation is great for grounding you and for bringing clarity to what is important.

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?

Since completing my training with Southern Sun hotels, I have been managing teams. My first ever team was 35 Xhosa men who were responsible for cleaning all back of house areas within the hotel, including the kitchens, back corridors, staff areas and the garbage disposal area. The reason why I highlight the nationality is because it was highly unusual for a white woman to be put in charge of leading a team of African males, because at the time, in their culture, it was considered as man’s work and unthought of that a woman could be in charge. As a young woman in her first leadership position in my early 20’s, I quite honestly had no idea what I was doing. I was obviously, doing something right, as we were getting the job done and having fun at the same time. In our lunch breaks we would practice different African dances in the hotel garage, with the support of drums. It was only later in my career that I started to use drums and other musical instruments as a training methodology for teams.

Throughout my leadership career, giving feedback has always been a high priority and of vital importance to managing individual as well as team performance. Feedback does not have to be formal, it can be quick and informal, as simple as “Joe, I appreciate you staying late yesterday to help out, that shows true teamwork, and we are lucky to have you in the team.” Formal feedback on the other hand, has been organized in advance at a time of mutual convenience. The time allotted would likely be 60–90 minutes, depending on the person’s position. Preparation for formal feedback was based on a set of questions, and the employee was briefed on how to prepare themselves for the feedback session using the questions. I always encourage team members to give feedback on themselves, rather than me telling them what I think. Discussion is around why they see themselves in this light to generate reflection on their strengths and to help them understand more about how to strengthen areas that might require further development.

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?

I personally do not believe there are “bad” employees, there are only bad leaders who influence employees to become bad performers. When an employee is newly recruited, there are usually several very strong positive reasons why we offered that particular person the job. Poor performance is unlikely to be one of them! Usually it is because they have the right background for the job, but more importantly the right attitude, a willingness and keenness for the job and a desire to work. What happens from that point on is about the experiences they encounter within the team from those who are instrumental and influential in their day-to-day work.

Honest and direct feedback has several benefits, in no particular order of importance:

  • The employee knows where they stand in terms of what they are doing well and what they need to improve on.
  • When finding employees doing something well and highlighting this, you get more of the same behaviour. If constantly focusing on what has to be improved, instead of motivating the employee to change, the end result is more often than not, a highly de-motivated employee who dislikes their boss and probably the job also.
  • Feedback very often reflects a company’s values, such as openness, integrity, honesty, transparency, teamwork and so on. If you as a leader are unable to demonstrate coherence with the company values and give direct and honest feedback, you are not leading by example and in effect are violating those values. Therefore, what message are you giving out to your team members?
  • Sometimes the truth hurts, but once it is brought out into the open through appropriate feedback, it provides the knowledge and tools to an employee to change their behaviour and or performance, rather than leaving them guessing about how they are performing.
  • When feedback is given correctly, and there is a balance between positive and constructive negative feedback and the latter shared with empathy, supported with clear explanation and facts, both positive and negative feedback becomes inspiring and motivates the employee to continue on the same track, trying harder where it is needed.
  • Formal feedback is also an opportunity to learn about career aspirations of your team members.

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.

Feedback is not only about negative performance. When a leader has a balanced approach and finds employees doing things right and gives positive feedback close to the time, when the opposite is required because the same employee is not performing well in some area, the employee will be more willing to listen, as they understand that their boss is fair and balanced in how he or she gives feedback. Working remotely means that you do not have the luxury of being in the same room and enjoying complete interaction through verbal and non verbal communication. However, feedback can and is performed on platforms such as Zoom, Skype and Whats App, all of which require you to be more attentive to facial expressions, tone of voice and words used by your employee. Therefore:

  1. Give positive feedback when it is due within a short time of the employee doing something that warrants recognition and feedback. When you do this, you will immediately see the pride in that person as they reflect on their own performance. Naturally this will make them feel valued, and as a consequence they will give more of the same performance and behaviour.
  2. If negative feedback is required due to underperformance, attitude to others, customers or work, in general, talk to the employee in a private space, out of the way of others who might be present in your environment or the environment of your employee. If needing to do this remotely, book a 1:1 call with that person.
  3. Give recognition for the employee’s usually high performance before addressing poor or a change in his/her behaviour or performance. Begin with a general introduction that explains why you have called the meeting, for example “I have noticed that your performance, which is usually excellent, has been falling during the last week. Is there anything going on in your life that might be causing you to lose concentration and focus?”
  4. Allow the employee the opportunity to answer and explain why this might be. If there is no specific reason for this change, explain clearly what aspect of their performance you are referring to, supporting it with facts. Ask the employee to comment on what you have said. For example: “What I have noticed is that you do not enter your activities and communications with clients and potential clients into the CRM, which means that no one else has any idea of what you might have discussed. If that client calls when you are not on shift and your colleagues are ignorant of a previous conversation with you, it means that potentially there is a lack of consistency of information making your colleague and possibly even you, seem unprofessional.”
  5. Agree on a way forward, motivate to change and set a review date in the near future. Ask for their commitment to change. For example:

“Sam, thank you for being open. I am glad we have reached an understanding about how you are going to change your performance to get back to your usual excellent way of working. Let’s agree to meet again on……… to follow up and see how you are doing? If you have any questions or difficulties in the meantime, please ask.”

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?

This is really a difficult question, and personally not a channel of communication that I would use to correct under performance. If an employee is performing well, I might send an email praising them. For correction of poor performance, when using email there are too many opportunities to be misunderstood and therefore lead to a reaction that is possibly irreparable. The possibility of it being misunderstood is further increased when crossing cultures and languages. Perhaps you are communicating with a person whose first language is not English, but this is the common language used in the company. This again increases the possibility for what you have written to be misunderstood.

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?

Feedback preferably to be given within 24 hours of the occurrence that you want to correct or behaviour you want to reinforce. This means it is fresh in both parties’ minds and therefore holds value. Try to give constructive negative feedback at a time when the employee is more likely to be open to listening and sharing. For example, in the middle of the shift, rather than at the end of a hard shift, when they are tired and want to go home. Once the employee is in agreement to change, agree on a follow-up date to see how they are getting on. In-between, give praise as and when it is due.

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

A great boss is someone, who is there, you feel their presence, but at the same time they are not there. What I mean by this, is that the boss is there if you need them, but if you do not, they are not micro-managing what you are doing. A great boss is someone who is out there “managing by walking about”. As they pass they say a few words of encouragement or enquire genuinely about how you are getting on, difficulties that you might be experiencing, or perhaps make you laugh to break any tension they feel. A great boss uses his/her intuition to feel how each person is, where support is needed and puts a hand out or lends an ear, before you ask for it.

There have been so many great bosses in my life, with thankfully only the odd example of an ineffective boss. You have to have the latter to understand how great the great ones truly are, thus learning from them all. The boss that springs to mind was early on in my career within the hotel industry. At the time, I was working at London Hilton in the Food and Beverage department. The boss I am referring to was the training director for Hilton UK. He saw my talent for becoming a trainer and requested that I conduct training for new recruits, customer service and several other courses whilst he was on secondment for several months at another Hilton hotel in Jamaica. It was agreed and I joined the training department. With no training on how to do this, two days later, I was thrown in at the deep end. Obviously, I swam, because I would not be writing this article, but more than that, his knowledge of my hidden talent and his trust in me was the dynamic combination that changed my career journey forever. Several months later he returned, and I replaced him in Jamaica to carry on what he had started.

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.

I do not wish to go backwards, but I do wish for more balance in our lives in general. Instead of chasing objects and trying to speed up our lives, slowing down and noticing one another, our surroundings and the riches of nature’s abundance. In doing so to build stronger communities that celebrate being human, look out and care genuinely for each other, including the vulnerable and supporting those that are suffering at different times due to life’s curveballs. In celebrating the true meaning of being human we experience and share joy, unconditional love and truth.

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

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot

The only thing that limits us as human beings, is ourselves. We have the power to be what we want to be, and therefore when you limit yourself there is nothing or no one else to blame for not achieving your dream. So often you hear limiting beliefs and the resignation behind the words and phrases such as “This or that is just a part of aging”, “I am too old to start that now”, “At my age you can expect to have x condition,” “I’ll never get another job at my age.” Societal programming is huge, limiting our beliefs that certain things happen at a certain age. But, only if you let it. Who says that at 60 you are old, that at a certain age, you are too old to learn something new, or that you have to retire? Throughout my life, I have followed my heart and achieved what I wanted to achieve, sometimes including that which I did not realize I was to achieve. Of course, the body ages, but that does not mean you cannot pursue your dreams and continue to grow and develop. It is never too late.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


Twitter: gkeydevelopment.com


Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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