“Feedback must be delivered with a positive, constructive intent.” with Rob Sullivan

Feedback must be delivered with a positive, constructive intent. — This is the most important principle when it comes to delivering effective feedback. Before you give anyone feedback, be absolutely sure every ounce of your being is focused on helping this person be the best possible version of themselves. That isn’t case when the manager’s own […]

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Feedback must be delivered with a positive, constructive intent. — This is the most important principle when it comes to delivering effective feedback. Before you give anyone feedback, be absolutely sure every ounce of your being is focused on helping this person be the best possible version of themselves. That isn’t case when the manager’s own insecurities get in the way. The most common example is the manager whose approach is apologetic: “I’m really sorry I have to do this…” or “I hope you don’t mind if I share a few thoughts.” This comes across as hesitant and completely lacking in confidence. It’s also not necessary. Feedback is a GIFT. Never apologize for helping someone improve.

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

Rob is a speaker, author, and executive coach who co-founded the international corporate training company SullivanZyl along with his partners Barry van Zyl and Josseline Ross. The common thread through all of the training Rob and his partners offer is around the importance of communicating with presence and minimizing the gap between what we say and what people hear. Rob is especially passionate about this topic because he is living proof that feedback, when delivered correctly, can be life-changing.

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?

What surprises most people about SullivanZyl is how we all met and came together. Having changed careers a number of times, I am a firm believer in the importance of following my heart and paying attention to the many synchronicities that bombard us every day. So, it’s no surprise that I met my partners by following my passions.

My earliest memories are of music so it would be difficult to overstate the importance of music in my life. One of my co-founders, Barry van Zyl and I, met on July 11, 2012 at a concert at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. At the time, he was the drummer for Johnny Clegg, the South African musical legend who sold 5 million albums and inspired Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Over the next few years, I met up with the band at three shows in France, five shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and several shows in London. Along the way, we discovered that the work he was doing in the areas of resonance, innovation and creativity overlapped nicely with the work I was doing with presence, energy, and listening.

Not long after I met Barry, I met our other partner, Josseline Ross, pursuing one of my other favorite interests: adventure travel. As an active member of the couchsurfing community, I have hosted over 900 people from 70 countries. One of those travelers was Josseline who immediately impressed me with her poise, presence, and positive energy. Josseline is German, grew up in Namibia, and speaks four languages fluently. She is also an exceptional writer and speaker who is passionate about gender equality, communication, and design thinking. Here again, we quickly realized that her areas of interest overlapped with the programs Barry and I have been creating. I love the fact that we came together not through the corporate world, but through concerts and coachsurfing.

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

There have been many. Most of the most amazing experiences came from not from asking “What happened?” or “Why did this happen?” but rather “What is the gift in this experience?”

The question is simple to state but may require a high degree of creativity, introspection, and openness to answer. The question itself was inspired by the recognition that in many cases our most traumatizing challenges come with a gift. In some cases, many gifts.

Five years ago, the lymphoma diagnosis that my Dad once told me would have been a death sentence when he was in medical school, brought enormous gifts I never expected. The love and connection I experienced as a result of my walk with the tumors opened my heart in a way that otherwise would never have happened. Without question, the tumors, as scary as they were, brought the biggest personal gifts I’ve ever experienced.

A few years ago, when I had the courage to leave a position that was not a fit for a wide range of personal and professional reasons, part of me was terrified because I had no idea how or when my next paycheck would arrive. However, once I had the courage to leave, the speed at which abundance showed up stunned me. I gave notice at 6:15pm on a Thursday. At 6am Friday morning, less than 12 hours later, a client I hadn’t talked to in several years sent an email and hired me for a project that covered my expenses for the next six months. It literally left me feeling as if I had spent the previous few months leaning against the door of abundance trying to keep it shut.

I could share many more examples, but the point is not about the past. The point is about the future. In any given moment, are we going to focus on fear or are we going to focus on possibility? Are we going to focus on scarcity or abundance?

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?

First, the only true bad experiences and mistakes are the ones from which we choose not to learn. And it is a choice. So, while this wasn’t necessarily a mistake, I would definitely handle it differently given the chance to do it over.

One year after I said goodbye to advertising to pursue a career as a bond options trader at the Chicago Board of Trade, I left the trading floor without immediate direction and without a next step. Since it was the Christmas season, I took a part-time job at Tower Records in Chicago, largely to feed my music addiction at a discount. I hadn’t really thought it through and didn’t anticipate the sad and sideways glances from former Leo Burnett colleagues who as much as said, “Oh, so you’re working here now?” Around the same time, my brother, Bill, started teasing me about being “downwardly mobile”. I still laugh when I think about that — especially since he was only 16 at the time.

What I learned from taking the leap without a back-up plan is the importance of not allowing myself to be influenced by the thinking of others. Some of the same people who thought it was cool and courageous for me to leave a great job at Burnett and take a 50% cut in pay to join an options trading firm were also among the first to say, “I hope you are going to be able to get your act together” when I left the trading floor. It’s like saying, “It’s ok to take a risk, but it has to work.” Nonsense. Learning to trust my intuition without regard to the opinions of others and honoring myself for taking risks without second-guessing and blame is what provided the fuel to get where I am today.

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

The most important point to realize is that work is either energizing or draining; there is no middle ground. Burnout starts the moment our job becomes more draining than energizing. The first challenge is for leaders to recognize this and create an environment that encourages people to grow and develop through exposure to different projects and experiences. Equally important is taking the time to learn about the skills that already exist within your teams that aren’t being used. When I do workshops, I often ask team members to raise their hands if they have a skill or ability they have a gut sense could be valuable to the company, but haven’t had an opportunity to do so. Almost every hand will go up. The people who don’t raise their hand probably would if given enough time to think about it. The point is, every company has encyclopedias of knowledge and experience they have yet to tap. It’s important to do so though because team members who do more of what they love are far less likely to burnout.

Another way we help people thrive is through an understanding of chronobiology, an area in which Barry has done a lot of work. Chronobiology is helpful because it focuses on our unique biorhythms — upbeats and downbeats. People who learn to be in tune with the peaks and troughs of their own energy cycles can improve productivity and avoid burnout at the same time.

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

Effective leadership is the ability to lead people to a common goal. This definition, while it might seem simple, is not one that enough companies take to heart. “People” and “goal” are the two most important words in the definition because for any company to reach its objectives, it must be both people-oriented and goal-oriented. Companies led by financial types who are focused on the bottom-line and view people as disposable are most likely to fail because they are exclusively goal-oriented. That doesn’t inspire loyalty, innovation, creativity, or any other people-oriented traits. Conversely, a company that is people-oriented, but doesn’t have clear or achievable goals isn’t likely to succeed either. You have to have both.

One of the best and saddest examples came from one of my clients a few years back. The company had a terrific culture, took care of their people, and trained them well. Later, they were taken over by a larger company that started randomly implementing unnecessary, de-motivating, and destructive cost-cutting measures. As a result, all they managed to do was destroy and disband a high-performing team that earned margins five times the industry average.

For example, It isn’t a best practice to take a traveling salesperson who brings in $10 million in net profit to the company, immediately change the comp plan, and proceed to tell the person you will no longer pay for their cell phone. That is not effective management, it’s stupidity. Contrary to popular belief, the greatest risk is not paying an employee too much; it’s paying the wrong person at all.

If you are fortunate to take over a company that has margins five times higher than your own, a far better plan would be to learn everything you can about how they run the company and approach the market. They clearly know something you don’t.

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 am a big believer in both exercise and meditation. If I know I will have a lot of adrenaline running through my body before a big meeting, I will often exercise first. In a way, that is a nice moving meditation because it is an opportunity to shut my mind off for a while. Meditation is also helpful, but here again it doesn’t have to be the “shut your eyes and light a candle variety.” Playing piano or guitar are two great ways I quiet my mind by focusing on something else completely. When I shut my eyes and meditate, I will often visualize and be grateful in advance for a favorable outcome. It’s amazing how well that works.

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?

For the past 15 years, I have delivered workshops and done extensive executive coaching in the areas of leadership, management, and developmental coaching across a wide range of industries including financial services, pharmaceutical/medical device, media/entertainment, and countless others. I am particularly passionate about this because I have seen firsthand the impact ineffective leaders have on morale, performance, and tenure.

My earliest experience leading a team is striking for what it didn’t include: training. I vividly remember when I was promoted and given two assistants in my early days as an Account Executive at Leo Burnett. I went to my boss and said, “I am thrilled about the vote of confidence and excited to take this next step. Since I have never managed people before, I need training. I would like to take a class.” He replied, “We don’t have time for that.”

Sadly, this is the same short-sighted approach many companies take. Later, when I worked as a headhunter at a retained search firm, I saw this play out again with one of our candidates who had been promoted too quickly. I’ll never forget this woman because she was the kind of charming, polished person you would probably want to hire immediately. Unfortunately, she was such a horrible manager that the six people who reported to her went to the president of the company and said, “Either fire her or we all quit.”

I did everything I could to encourage this woman to take a step back and get the training she needed. Afterall, it wasn’t her fault the company didn’t offer training. Sadly, this woman was convinced she was a great manager and completely unwilling to acknowledge an issue that could easily have been addressed.

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?

People don’t leave companies; they leave managers. If we don’t help people grow and develop, they will leave. It’s that simple. For this reason, one of the most important roles we have as a leader is to help people recognize and address blind spots and other developmental opportunities. Some companies do a terrific job of this and embrace the idea that feedback is multi-directional. In other words, it isn’t simply about a manager sharing praise and opportunities for improvement with a team member. To have a true feedback culture, there must be an openness and willingness for everyone to share feedback in any direction: manager to team member, team member to manager, and peer to peer.

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.

As you may notice, the ideas outlined below apply to both face-to-face and remote coaching environments. When appropriate, any differences between the two will be spelled out in the following answers.

1. Feedback must be delivered with a positive, constructive intent.This is the most important principle when it comes to delivering effective feedback. Before you give anyone feedback, be absolutely sure every ounce of your being is focused on helping this person be the best possible version of themselves. That isn’t case when the manager’s own insecurities get in the way. The most common example is the manager whose approach is apologetic: “I’m really sorry I have to do this…” or “I hope you don’t mind if I share a few thoughts.” This comes across as hesitant and completely lacking in confidence. It’s also not necessary. Feedback is a GIFT. Never apologize for helping someone improve.

Even more destructive is the manager who comes across as an obnoxious know-it-all. These managers are more interested in looking and feeling smart and superior than they are in helping.

Another interesting issue is that many managers worry about the words they use. However, words are far less important than the intent.

The best example of this happened in a workshop led by the head of a New York talent agency. The purpose of the workshop was to help people looking to get into the industry as actors and models. What amazed me about this woman was her ability to deliver objectively harsh and personal feedback in a way that left people wanting more and inspired to change. She absolutely had a gift — a gift with a strong foundation in intention. Everyone clearly picked up on the following message:

“I can see you are passionate and excited about getting into this industry. I know you are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. I am about to share with you exactly what is getting in your way and what you need to change — the very things the people who would otherwise reject you will never tell you.”

However, the woman leading the workshop never said any of those words. Instead, the message was conveyed purely through intention. As a result, every single person in that room was on the edge of his or her chair literally begging for more as she shared feedback so harsh it would make Simon from The Voice blush.

2. Focus on the behavior, not the person

Too often, team members leave “coaching” sessions feeling as if they have been personally attacked rather than empowered to improve. This is unfortunate because the focus should be on correctable behaviors, not the team member’s worthiness as a person.

If you, as a coach, are focused on correctable behaviors and your intent is to help the person improve, you can — and should — provide feedback on anything that will help them improve including hygiene, grammar, accent reduction, and other sensitive topics. Of course, these topics may require some extra sensitivity on your part, but the fact that they are challenging or awkward doesn’t mean they should be avoided. The key here is that you are addressing a behavior that is impeding their performance and that they can change. I’ll illustrate this later with an example that combines Principles 3 and 4 below as well.

3. Feedback should be balanced and specific

Providing exclusively positive feedback or exclusively negative feedback doesn’t work; feedback must include praise as well as opportunities for improvement. At the same time, it must be specific in the sense that you provide evidence of your observations. Without evidence, the team member may rightfully disagree with your observations — especially if what you said was based on personal preference or opinion.

4. Be honest and direct

Honesty seems like it goes without saying, and it should. However, I would take this a step further and say that any manager who avoids difficult feedback simply because they are uncomfortable or afraid of how the person may react is being dishonest. The key question to ask yourself is this: “If I were making this mistake and had no idea, would I want someone to tell me?” If the answer is yes — and it should be — you would be out of integrity to skip this feedback. Always think of feedback as a gift because that is exactly what it is.

One of the angels in my life for whom I am most grateful is a former girlfriend named Amber. Six months after we broke up, Amber gave me what turned out to be life-changing feedback about how I was coming across. The short version of the story is that I had a severe scarcity mentality around money and was completely blind to the fact that I was being perceived as cheap. When Amber shared specific instances (Principle #3), I couldn’t deny what I had done. Once I got over the embarrassment, I made a commitment to address the issue and transform into the generous person I knew I could become. Thanks to Amber, I have a much healthier relationship with money, I have handled my debt, and am no longer seen by anyone who knows me know as cheap. That was a gift for which I am forever grateful.

Now that we have covered four of the five core principles in providing feedback, I will share an example to show how these principles can be applied. In one of my ride-along coaching assignments, my role was to watch a manager coach one of his team members named Dan. At the end of the meeting, the manager impressed me by saying that he wanted me to give him feedback in front of Dan. This manager wanted his team to know what he needed to work on so they could hold him accountable. Considering the way team members consciously and unconsciously mirror the behaviors of their leaders, it wasn’t surprising that Dan followed by asking me to give him feedback in front of the manager. In this case, the feedback I had was potentially challenging and required all of the principles covered so far. Starting with my response to Dan, I have included an explanation for why I did what I did in the conversation that follows:

Rob: “I am happy to give you feedback. How open are you to coaching?”

(Even though he asked for coaching, I asked the question anyway because if he said he was open yet reacted defensively, he wouldn’t need me to tell him he was out of integrity with his stated openness. This is also an important question to ask anytime you give feedback because even the most open people have bad days. If someone’s dog died that morning, they aren’t open to feedback. Wait for a better time.)

Dan: (with genuine enthusiasm) “I am very open. Anything you can tell me that will help me be more effective would be great.”

Rob: “Excellent. First, what I like most about your approach is that I can tell you genuinely care about your clients and want to do whatever you can to help them.”

(At this point, I shared a few specific examples of what I heard him say about his client interactions. This is the positive reinforcement that provides balance and evidence mentioned in Principle 2.)

“I also noticed something you are doing that is getting in the way of building relationships with your prospects. The unfortunate thing is that there are people who won’t do business with you because of this and they will never tell you why.”

(I structured my comments intentionally to get a preliminary read on whether he was truly open or potentially defensive. Fortunately, he was open.)

Dan: (eagerly) “Tell me more. I want to fix whatever is getting in the way.”

Rob: “I love your commitment. That’s great. Here is what I noticed: you have to be careful about your grammar.”

(Note: If I had stopped at this point, this would have been horrible feedback. Without specificity, it would be perceived as a personal attack on the way he speaks rather than a correctable issue.)

“Twice today I’ve heard you say, ‘Him and I have a meeting at 3pm.’ Grammatically, that is incorrect. It should be ‘He and I have a meeting at 3pm.’ The issue here is that you are calling on well-educated presidents and chief financial officers of companies. Fair or not, they will hear you say ‘Him and I’ and think, ‘Hmmm, maybe he’s not as smart as I thought.’ Unfortunately, they will choose not to do business with you and they will likely never tell you why. I would hate to see that happen because, based on the ideas I’ve heard you share today and your passion for the business, I am clear that many of these people would be far better off partnering with you. Correcting this is going to take effort and commitment on your part. I am equally confident you can do this.”

When feedback is delivered with positive intent, a genuine interest in helping the person improve, and with specific examples, both positive and negative, the odds are much higher it will be received openly and with a commitment to improve. In Dan’s case, there was no doubt in my mind he would work to become more consciously aware of his grammar and word choice.

5. Feedback must be real-time and timely

I am a huge fan of technology and the many advances in communication that have happened in the past few decades with respect to email, texting, and video streaming. Of these, the two most potentially problematic are text and email. My basic principle with respect to email and texting is that these should be used for facts, not feelings. To put this another way, texts and emails are for information, not communication. There is a difference. Examples of information would include confirming plans, times, dates, and other logistical items. Communication is different because it involves feelings.

The basic principle here is this: If what you are about to say has the potential to create an emotional reaction — especially a negative one like hurt or disappointment, the conversation needs to happen in real time — either face-to-face, via video call, or on the phone. These conversations should not take place via text or email because they force the parties involved to respond in a vacuum. In other words, if you say something that upsets another person and do so in real time, there is an immediate feedback loop in the sense that the upset person’s reaction is experienced by the person who prompted the reaction. With texts and email that isn’t true. As a result, if the person was going to be 8 out of 10 on an upset scale, they will be more like 12 if they are responding alone.

So, let’s apply this to coaching. The only appropriate environments are, in order of preference, face-to-face, video call, phone call. That’s it. You can use email to CONFIRM what was discussed, but not to COMMUNICATE the information in the first place. As the manager, you set the tone so make sure you are leading appropriately in this regard.

In addition to giving feedback in real-time, it should also be timely. One of my clients was on the receiving end of a manager who violated this and few other principles we’ve discussed. Throughout the year, my client received frequent emails praising his efforts punctuated by dozens of exclamation points and smiley faces. Ignoring for a moment how utterly unprofessional emoticons are, the clear message seemed to be that the manager was pleased with the person’s work. Imagine his surprise in the year-end performance review when she rated him as “Not meeting expectations.”

At no point during the year did this manager ever give a single indication that his performance wasn’t meeting expectations. In fact, the smiley faces and exclamation points communicated exactly the opposite. In response, he said, “I’m confused. What, specifically, didn’t I do?” She responded, “Well, we just thought you’d do more.” In other words, she was evaluating him against a target she never set. That isn’t fair. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he resigned shortly after and the company ended up facing a number of lawsuits (not from him) as a result of their incredibly poor management techniques.

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?

There are only two circumstances in which it is appropriate to deliver feedback via email:

  1. You have already had the conversation in person (real time) so you are using email to memorialize the conversation.
  2. You are delivering positive feedback about a specific project or accomplishment.

In this case, while it is still important to acknowledge the person in real time so they feel the energy and intention, written praise can be incredibly valuable because it gives the person something they can reread whenever they need a boost. This is particularly important if “Words of Affirmation” is the love language of the team member. For some people, myself included, you could say the words and I might not hear them, but if you write them down, I will save the email or card forever. This is one of the reasons I recommend the book, The Five Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman — even to corporate clients. Four of the five love language provide valuable insights in work situations as well.

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?

In accordance with Principle 5 above, feedback should be given as close to the event as possible. As for the frequency, part of that depends on the environment. I’ve coached managers who have 25+ team members and struggle to find time to adequately coach them all. Ideally, assuming you only have a few direct reports, plan for between one and three formal coaching sessions per month per team member. However, don’t confuse coaching with a performance review. For many companies, the performance review is an annual event that looks back at the performance and assigns a grade. Coaching, on the other hand, looks forward to help the person move from where they are now to where they would like to be.

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

I have been fortunate to meet and work with a few great bosses in my life. One that stands out from a coaching perspective wasn’t a single person, but an entire executive team. Recognizing that the company hadn’t done enough to develop its managers, the team embarked on what started as a six-month journey to train and develop the managers. At the end of the engagement, the executive team and I sat down to share our observations and come up with a plan to make the changes sustainable. What impressed me most wasn’t simply their willingness to admit that they had opportunities that needed to be addressed, it was the speed with which they addressed them. For example, the biggest issue we faced was that, in the absence of training, the culture that had developed wasn’t a coaching culture, but rather one in which people feared feedback and took every critique personally. To address this, and to create accountability on the part of the managers, we created a program for the team members in which we talked candidly about feedback, delegation, and the fact that they would be seeing different behaviors from their managers. We also talked about the role each person played in creating a true coaching culture that encourages rather than discourages. What made me especially proud to lead the initiative was the company’s commitment to make it happen. Less than six weeks after the management training ended, we had already designed and begun to deliver workshops for the team members. Where so many other companies get mired in approvals and processes, they made a decision collectively and moved ahead faster than I have ever seen a company move — especially considering the hundreds of team members who attended the sessions.

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 am already working on this in the sense that I am constantly reminding people of the power of their thoughts, words, energy, and intention. That’s a huge part of what effective coaching provides — an insight into the blind spots we all have.

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

On the mirror in my bathroom is my favorite quote from Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This is a meaningful quote for me because I have been working hard in my adult life, with greater and lesser success, to be more thoughtful and less reactionary in the face of obstacles. The most frequent reminders come from other drivers, but the concept applies in every area of life. This is the same concept Neale Donald Walsh talked about in his book Conversations with God when he said the difference between REACTIVE and CREATIVE is the ability to “C” things differently. When you choose to “C” things differently — to literally make “C” the first letter in the word instead of the fourth — you get a more positive approach that more closely resembles the growth and freedom of which Viktor Frankl spoke.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit our website: Sullivanzyl.com. Also, feel free to connect with us on LinkedIn. In the connection request, be sure3 to mention this article so we don’t accidentally mistake you for someone who is either randomly connecting for no particularly reason or trying to sell us something.

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

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