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A Bitter Pill With Sugar Coating - AKA Feedback Which Isn’t Even Feedback

August 04, 2021, 6-min. read
Sugarcoating Feedback-1

As children, we’re already familiar with it. When we were sick and needed to swallow some bitter and awful tasting medicine, it came with a sugar coating. We then quickly swallowed the coated bitter pill so that we didn't accidentally get to the nasty inner part and to get it over with fast...

… If possible without the bad taste and without consequences.

But is this what we expect from feedback? Not for most people. If we take it seriously, on the contrary, we expect it to have some consequences, ideally positive.

But reality shows that when we give critical feedback, we often become children again and rely on some mystical magic inside that miraculously works as a cure without putting a bad taste in our mouths.


Why do we sugarcoat feedback, actually?

There are numerous reasons why we need to nicely package critical feedback. That is, besides the fact that our mothers taught us to when we were little.

We don't even realize some of the reasons, and in truth we often don't even realize that we're sugarcoating. There are a number of studies which show that "sugarcoating" managers were convinced they gave feedback clearly, openly and honestly. Nevertheless, the other party sometimes didn’t even notice that they were criticized, or they felt a certain pressure or urgency on the part of the manager but didn’t understand what specifically, if anything, was required of them at all.

This shows that with excessive effort to positively give critical feedback, the form can completely outweigh the content. And unfortunately, unlike the aforementioned medicine, feedback doesn’t work without it.

It may even happen that as a result of trying to lead with sugarcoating the negative, some managers end up being pushy, manipulative and aggressive for the latter part. A form which is too subtle leads to misunderstandings, which managers may interpret as resistance, disapproval or reluctance to change something. They feel frustrated, so they start pushing and being extremely imperative. And because the facts were lacking in the first place, people shut down even more in relation to such pressure.

It may even happen that as a result of trying to lead with sugarcoating the negative, some managers end up being pushy, manipulative and aggressive for the latter part

So, why do we sugarcoat?

  1. For our own sake
  • Praise and positives roll off the tongue, it’s easier, more pleasant for me
  • I’m afraid I’ll provoke a conflict
  • I’m afraid the other side may start criticizing me as payback
  • I want to show that I mean well
  • I want the other side to like me (and no one likes bringers of bad news)
  • I'm afraid I'll ruin our good relationship
  • I’m afraid it will negatively affect other things that we work on together.
Bitter Feedback
  1. For the sake of others
  • not to harm them
  • not to demotivate them
  • not to make them feel inferior or bad
  • not to upset them
  1. Because of the consequences

  • I assume that if the partner accepts it and doesn’t get defensive, it will be easier for me to achieve the result - usually some changes.
  1. For various other reasons

  • I don't know another way to do it
  • Someone taught me that way
  • I’ve observed it
  • I read an article on the topic: "5 ways to 'sugarcoat' your negative feedback" 😊

If we read all the above reasons carefully, we see that there are actually two things behind them.

First, we build on our own assumptions. We imagine the consequences and thus hinder ourselves. Instead of listening to the other side, taking interest in how they see the matter and working with their reactions, we’re already stuck in a network of our own fears, assumptions and unverified suppositions beforehand.

Secondly, we consider criticism and mistakes, respectively, as being primarily bad. As something that needs to be identified and defended against, instead of perceiving it as a useful gift for our learning and improvement.

So let's learn to see mistakes as useful and discuss things openly, ask questions, be interested in the opinions of others, and then we don't have to smokescreen or sugarcoat.

What does it look like when we sugarcoat?

It may occur to you at the moment that you are definitely not doing this. On the contrary, you always try to be candid, open and clear.

Maybe so, but let's check together. Make a mark to count each phrase or statement you have used 😉

  • Inaccurate wording
    • "There are other options"
    • "It could be better"
    • "I can imagine it being done better… sooner…"
    • "It wasn't that exactly"
    • "It doesn't match my expectations"
    • "It wasn't ideal"
Feedback + by LutherOne
  • Depersonalized advice of the "not me” type
    • "If i were you…"
    • "Take it as advice"
    • "I wouldn't say that, but…"
    • "I don't know, but…
    • "I don't have a problem with that, but…"
    • "Look, I don't mind, but it could be a problem if…"
  • Softening
    • "A bit"
    • "A Little"
    • "A tad"
    • "A drop of"
  • Trivialization
    • "It's no big deal"
    • "It's nothing important"
    • "It's just a triviality"
    • "It's not serious"
    • "It's actually okay, just…
    • "I wouldn't even say that if…"
  • Unclear or no form of expectations (no deadline)
    • "Try to improve it"
    • "Think about it"
    • "I just wanted to tell you"
    • "It's up to you how you handle it"
    • "I don't want to put pressure on you"
    • "Take your time, consider it"
FREE EBOOK The Leadership Renaissance
  • Nested general compliments and flattery
    • "I respect you as an expert"
    • "Your opinions are always valuable to me"
    • "I know I can count on you"
    • "I know you're doing a good job"
    • "You’re one of the most experienced"
  • Artificially positive introduction (preparation) or intentionally soothing conclusion (using the sandwich)

So how many marks did you make? If fewer than 5, congratulations!

If more than 5, it will probably happen here and there that your feedback won’t get through and will remain carefully hidden inside the sugar coating.

That's a shame! Remember that people want to improve and do a good job, and they can't unless someone tells them what they're doing wrong.

So what about it? Well, just don't do it, don't sugarcoat 😊

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