Wendy Appel of Trilogy Effect: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

There’s a great expression I like to use, “It takes at least two to know one.” Providing feedback is like holding up a mirror. The idea is to let the person view how he or she is being experienced and help them see the ripple effect. Asa part of our series about “How To Give […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

There’s a great expression I like to use, “It takes at least two to know one.” Providing feedback is like holding up a mirror. The idea is to let the person view how he or she is being experienced and help them see the ripple effect.

Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Appel of Trilogy Effect.

As a founding partner of Trilogy Effect, people hire Wendy to be their executive coach, facilitator, keynote speaker and trusted advisor. She authored the globally recognized book, InsideOut Enneagram: The Game-Changing Guide for Leaders and is the creator of The Enneagram Typing Cards. Her life’s work is helping people live and lead from their greatness.

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?

Having finished college with a liberal arts degree, I camped my way to San Francisco from the Midwest and got right into high tech before it was “a thing.” I worked my way through the electronic publishing industry — from account exec to product development director to multimedia producer.

And then I was done doing that. I realized that I wanted to focus my efforts where I thought I could make a difference. So, I went back to school and got my master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology. Going to grad school in my 30s was terrific. And, it was in the university bookstore that a book on the Enneagram caught my eye. That started what is now a 28-year journey, which includes publishing a book InsideOut Enneagram: The Game-Changing Guide for Leaders.

Once I graduated, I started my own business developing and facilitating public workshop and eight years into it, I had learned A LOT. I came away with wonderful experiences and a fabulous and effective toolkit.

On to Europe, where I spent amazing 7.5 years living and working internationally. This was a dream come true as my consulting career blossomed, and I traveled all over Europe working with international clients. And then, the 2008 financial crisis hit, and I was at a crossroad. I’d always dreamed of writing a book someday, so I said to myself, “if not now, when?”

I moved to the beautiful island of Mallorca and got to work. This journey wasn’t easy but by its end, my book was born. I put a lot of what I learned during that time into my book, to share what I learned to help others. The Enneagram was a huge contributor to my own self-understanding, healing and transformation.

I felt it was time to get back to the US and bring what I had learned to share with my clients. This started the next chapter of my life and work with two treasured colleagues, Heather Marasse and Mary Beth Sawicki and the formation of our boutique consultancy — Trilogy Effect.

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

What sets us apart is that, as outside consultants, we never show up to “fix” people or our client organizations. We focus on surfacing untapped potential, and on bringing out the best in everyone through coaching and working with teams.

A quote from one of a client who’s a leader at healthcare regulator highlights our approach: “I went into this with a lot of trepidation; I had been down the road before with insights, with all sorts of different approaches. What Trilogy Effect does differently is they don’t label any person or behavior as problematic, there is no judgement and there’s no sense that the person or the team needs to be fixed. Instead, the focus is on understanding everyone’s unique strengths, and that to maximize those strengths, we all have work to do. It felt like we were finally getting at the root of things we were trying to address for years.”

Each client engagement is customized. We have a roadmap and a curated set of frameworks and tools, but how, when and in what combination is based on emerging client needs. Being adaptable and agile is one of our hallmarks.

Another thing that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to others, but I think it comes through in our work, is that we don’t ask our clients to take on development that we aren’t doing ourselves, individually and with each other. It’s so much easier to install a new system or change a process than it is to work with the human side of business. Our clients push us (unknowingly) to grow ourselves. To be the support our clients need, we must keep doing our own work.

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

Through the Coaching Fellowship, I volunteer my time to coach women founders of social impact organizations. That’s how I had the good fortune to meet and work with Misan Rewane, founder of WAVE Academies (West Africa Vocational Education).

She invited me to Nigeria to facilitate her company retreat three years running. It’s some of the most rewarding work I have ever done. “Interesting” doesn’t do it justice.

It’s hard to encapsulate the experience because it was incredibly rich and multi-layered. I learned so much about the Nigerian culture and about myself too.

I was working with young people in their twenties, many of whom had no formal education but were on a mission to do good. I was in awe of their grit and determination in the face of starting with so little and having so many obstacles to overcome.

Each time I visited, I came away heart overflowing, fully energized, and inspired. What Misan and her team have been able to accomplish with sheer grit and passion, and with so little, is beyond humbling.

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?

Early in my career, I was living and working in San Francisco. At 8:30am I was scheduled to give a presentation to the entire litigation department at a large law firm. In those days, I carried my high heels and wore running shoes for comfort during the commute.

I was running a little behind and arrived at their lobby out of breath. I dug into my bag to change into my heels, only to find I had brought two left shoes! The conference room was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass and they were all waiting (mostly men) as I strolled in wearing my running shoes and business suit. There was no where to hide. I was embarrassed and was worried about making a bad first impression. So, I pointed to my feet and explained the situation. We all laughed and then I started the meeting. It wasn’t career limiting, and I learned two lessons. Don’t pretend they don’t see your running shoes. Name it, make fun of yourself, and move on. The other lesson was about taking the necessary time to prepare ahead of important meetings.

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

I always advise leaders to take care of themselves first. Look after your own body, mind and spirit. This will not only replenish you, it will fuel your success.

Find out what fills your cup; what’s energizing for you? Then carve out time for it. It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best ideas come from taking your foot off the gas and pushing your chair back from your desk.

When our capacity to respond effectively is diminished through overwork and pushing ourselves, we risk going “below the line”. This is a phrase we use at Trilogy Effect to describe that moment of choice when you can respond with the generosity, wisdom, grace, vision and courage of a true leader or instead, you just tighten up, blame, judge and criticize.

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

Based on data from gathered from more than 200,000 leaders worldwide who have taken the Leadership Circle Profile, the number one predictor of effective leadership related to business performance is to be purposeful and visionary. Other close contenders are: fosters team play, interpersonal intelligence and strategic focus, in that order.

However, leadership is an art. You can’t simply apply a formula to leadership. It comes from within. Technical skills are important, but that leap from individual contributor to a leadership position is a big one. Technical skills drop to the background, and how you show up moves to the fore. How do you lead yourself and your life (self-leadership) and are you someone that others trust and follow?

Leadership takes knowing yourself, what trips you up, your motivations, your beliefs and what it takes to bring out your best self.

Leadership doesn’t necessarily come with a position. An extraordinary, but well-known, example is Greta Thunberg. Whether you agree with her or not, you certainly must admire this young woman for her commitment, vision and courage.

Now think of someone you know who is in a leadership position. This person has the title and authority, but does he or she inspire people to action? Do people want to go the distance for this person? Does this person have influence because of who they are and how they show up? If you answer no to any of these questions, this person is no leader.

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?

Back to your earlier question about what it takes to thrive and avoid burnout, I look after my own body, mind and spirit every day. This is not just for high stakes events, but it lays the groundwork for them.

However, when the stakes are high, I make sure to take a moment and connect with my ‘best self’. I quiet the voices of doubt and fear, and hush the “am I good enough,” second-guessing voices. The person who emerges is a very present me. Then I trust that I’ve got this, and whatever is meant to happen, will happen. I feel fully prepared and ready.

There isn’t one story that comes to mind I can share to exemplify this concept. It’s an ongoing practice I apply in advance of all my coaching sessions or when I’m facilitating or working with a team. I then feel prepared to take command of dynamic situations and respond intuitively and confidently as events unfold. I let go, and fully rely on and trust my ‘best self’.

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 was a team leader early in my career, working in start-ups and national organizations where I first learned the importance of giving constructive feedback. Since becoming a leadership coach, one of the most frequent issues I run into continues to be feedback — to give it, when to give it, how to give it, the consequences of giving or not giving feedback. Whether it is peer to peer, boss to direct report, direct report to boss, how to give productive feedback is what my clients want to work on. Over the span of my +25-year career, I’ve coached thousands of business leaders, in organizations of every description, in how and when to provide constructive feedback to support their employees’ growth and 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?

Here’s what I’ve learned from being the feedback recipient, the feedback giver and coaching leaders around feedback: Humans are unpredictable and messy.

That’s why most of us don’t like to give feedback. We fear the lack of control inherent in these situations. Yes, we can regulate what we say and how we deliver feedback, but how the person responds is up for grabs!

Giving feedback is almost always worse in our imagination than when we actually do it. However, when leaders have to courage to give feedback, it rarely goes as just they’ve imagined it. When they’ve prepared, giving feedback often goes far better than predicted and in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.

The key point about feedback is to give it early and often. Corrective and supportive feedback lets people know when they remain on course, or if they have drifted off. Don’t wait until it’s review time to provide feedback. First, it’s stale. Secondly, the person receiving the feedback will wonder why you’ve waited for so long to tell them that they need to tack or jibe. It might even be too late to get back on course.

For most people, the classic ‘feedback sandwich’ doesn’t work. If you start by saying something positive, they’ll be anticipating the negative and with their attention diverted, they may not even hear those positive remarks. Instead, point to their positive intent (assuming you think there was positive intent).

Remember, most of the feedback we give employees is, in fact, a strength overused. For instance, someone’s overly optimistic outlook, achievement orientation, perfectionism, being accommodating, being a driver, etc. All these are actually gifts, but they do have some liabilities. You can help people see where they can deploy their strength as an asset, and where it is getting in their way.

There’s a great expression I like to use, “It takes at least two to know one.” Providing feedback is like holding up a mirror. The idea is to let the person view how he or she is being experienced and help them see the ripple effect.

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.

So many of us are WFM (working from home) these days and this makes providing feedback to team members can be tricky. It means we are relying more than ever on emails and texting to communicate day-to-day work updates and information.

However, should never be giving feedback via text or email. It should be given privately and in person. Today, that often means over a one-on-one video call, or in the worst-case scenario, over the phone.

Five Suggestions:

  • Don’t wait to address issues

The absence of giving feedback is more hurtful and demoralizing than giving it. It’s discouraging to the rest of the organization when you don’t address issues. You’ll lose good people. You are sending the wrong message when you don’t address employee issues. For example, your top sales guy might be making his numbers consistently, but maybe he bullies his colleagues, or plays fast and loose with the truth. This creates a toxic work culture and sets and poor example among the sales team. Watching him get one bonus after another will harm other team members. Either they’ll start to emulate his behavior or they may begin looking for a new opportunity elsewhere.

  • Never shame anyone

It’s important not to shame your team members in front of their peers or in meetings. Feedback should always be given in person and privately. There are two kinds of feedback, skills based and behaviour based. Address these points when providing feedback to reduce the chance of it being taken personally. For example, “You’re not cut out for this role, but there are roles that your skills and talents would be well suited for.” Or, “We’re confident you know your stuff, but we need to you present your ideas in a way that’s more engaging.”

  • Check your assumptions

Leaders sometimes avoid giving feedback because it’s backfired on them in the past. They may have stepped over the line and the person felt his or her character was attacked, and his motives or intentions were assumed. Avoid this by not making assumptions in advance. Ensure you have a full grasp of all the facts and information and understand the context before jumping to conclusions.

  • Plan how you will respond

Giving feedback to someone can elicit an emotional response, and bosses often feel ill-equipped to deal with people’s emotions. How you respond or react to the person receiving the feedback is as important as giving the feedback itself. Check to see how the person is feeling. For example, “You seem angry. Are you?” Encourage them to be honest about their feelings, and then listen to what they have to say. Let them know that you understand how they might be feeling that way — express empathy.

  • Remember that giving feedback is like giving a gift

A feedback discussion needn’t be a negative experience. When feedback is timely and constructive and is delivered with empathy, it’s literally a gift from the leader. Make your primary motivation the growth, development and opportunity for each member of your team.

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?

Avoid giving feedback over email. Ask yourself: what is your driving your decision to send an email instead of waiting until you can have a conversation? Then ask yourself: under what circumstances would sending corrective feedback via email be so time critical that it can’t wait for a video or voice call? Often, we send off those emails impulsively. Don’t.

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?

It depends. It’s situational and depends upon the context. Did this person do or say something at a meeting? Is it something that happened during a conversation with you? Is it an issue of non-performance or accountability? These are just a few examples of possible situations that would cause a leader to want to give corrective feedback.

If the feedback is based on behavior at a meeting, best not to shame the person in front of their peers. Meet with that person privately. In fact, all corrective feedback should be given privately. Timing? As a leader, it’s important to be attuned to the emotional state of this person. Are they angry and riled up? Crying? Do you see and sense some emotionality? If so, wait a bit.

If you don’t, they won’t be able to hear what you have to say. A cocktail of chemicals is coursing through their system and you want it to subside first. Don’t wait too long. Maybe just overnight to give them a chance to calm down and reflect on what happened.

If the feedback has to do with lack of accountability and performance. Don’t wait unless you want the behavior to continue. It’s the only way to help them course correct.

As soon as you see a green sprout of improvement, give encouragement. Just like a plant, people grow toward the light. When they slip back it’s time for corrective feedback. Redirect and provide ongoing support. Be consistent because any behavior change requires ongoing feedback. It takes a lot of self-awareness and practice.

Your job is to help hold up the mirror for someone to let them see how they are doing.

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

Early in my career, I fell victim to office politics. While my boss was away on vacation, one of my more competitive colleagues sabotaged my chance for promotion. When my boss returned to work and learned about what happened, she was incensed! But at that point, there was nothing she could do to fix the situation.

Carol was someone I admired. She was strong and compassionate. It meant a lot to me that she took up my cause. What really helped was that she shared a story about a similar situation she faced during her career and how devastating it was for her. I had been beating myself up for how things happened. After she told me her own story, I felt soothed and affirmed. Carol made a long-lasting impression.

A good boss sets the vision and direction for his or her team, make sure it aligns to the overall organization’s vision and then inspires people toward that vision. Good bosses engage and involve their team to develop a path toward that vision. They communicate regularly — two-way — interact often and get to know their team personally.

Effective bosses share timely information from above and across the organization, jointly set goals and objectives, advocate, ensure accountability for honoring agreements and commitments, and make sure people adhere to ethics and standards. They also communicate how the team is doing against the goals, regularly. They celebrate wins, and lessons learned from mistakes.

But only a truly great boss will find out what motivates everyone on their team and how to speak the language of each of their direct reports. Understanding what makes people tick helps you speak to their way of listening. This isn’t easy, but boy it works!

The best bosses are mentors. A mentor is a wise and trusted ‘counselor’ who passes on knowledge, experience and wisdom and who opens doors to opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach. A great boss helps their team develop, grow and thrive both personally and professionally. They bring out people’s best.

This was the story of my boss and she made all the difference

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. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, I would help everyone learn to accept every part of themselves, even the bits they don’t like. And once they do that, they’ll know how to be more accepting of others.

The movement would be called, “Love.”

There are so many other voices within us, and those tend to be the voices we listen to: the critical voice, the arrogant voice, the “I’m not good enough” voice, the voice of fear, the voice of judgment, control, worry … We tend to feed these voices instead of the loving, calm, compassionate, courageous and wise voices.

Imagine a world where we all lift each other up, recognize that my personal best isn’t in competition with yours’; a world where we are acting from our best selves and not from a dualistic, win/lose mindset? What kind of world could be created from that place?

How? Recognize that everyone has a story, our own history. Our story is shaped by our family of origin, who raised us, where we were born, into what religion and culture … AND it’s also shaped by what I call our superpowers; those predispositions we’re born with like: responsibility, creating order and structure, empathy, courage, innovation, calm, creativity, enthusiasm, positivity, goal and achievement orientation … How do we make best use of our own superpowers, so they aren’t overused and misused, thereby becoming our kryptonite? By befriending and learning how to wield these superpowers.

The good news is that each of us has a ‘best self’ or ‘higher self’ to guide us on this journey. To pull from another movie character, think of your higher self as your inner Obi Wan Kenobi.

What if we dropped our protective armor and took this journey? It’s a homecoming of sorts; coming home to oneself where we learn to trust ourselves and know that we can, with love, courage, and wisdom, face whatever comes our way.

I imagine a very different world than today’s and my heart aches for it.

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

There are so many, it’s almost impossible to choose just one. Each is a little nugget of wisdom that has been salve for my soul or has inspired me to move beyond fear, at critical junctures in my life. My book is peppered with many of them; lines from poems, books, movies, quotes from people famous and unknown. Given today’s world, this quote seems particularly relevant, and it’s one I often share with clients:

“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,” Viktor Frankl, from his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” based on his experience in Nazi concentration camps. He was an Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor. I keep this book on my shelf and have read it many times.

As a person for whom freedom has deep significance, Frankl taught me that freedom is an ‘inside job’. Without inner freedom, we are trapped in a box of our own making, and we don’t even know we’re in it. We don’t see reality as it is, we see reality through the gauzy curtain of our own history and perspectives, shaped over a lifetime. When we manage to open the box and break free of it, therein lies our growth. We are otherwise destined to repeat our reactive patterns, time and again. Dr. Frankl realized that the only control he had was how responded to his dire situation.

When we create some elbow room between stimulus and response, there lies opportunity for each of us to break free of our reactive patterns and choose to try on something new.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d love to connect with your readers! You can find me at all the links below.

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

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...


“How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful” with Yana Carstens

by Penny Bauder, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

“How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful” With Tammi Pickle

by Penny Bauder, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Jenn Lishansky of ‘Be Social Change’: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

by Alexandra Spirer

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.