Giving feedback? Avoid nice.

One Saturday, I was outside when a neighbor came by. My wife and I had just moved in, the neighbor wanted to welcome us.

Later, I told my wife. “This neighbor,” I said, “seems very_______” (choose one):
a) suspicious
b) tall
c) nice

Nice! Here we are, 2014, and this is our highest-level descriptor. People are either “nice,” or “not nice.” Sometimes they start out one way, then turn the other.

Words like “nice” may be ok in our personal lives, ok for gossip, but they’re dangerous for feedback.

Why? The vaguer your feedback, the more likely the other person will 1) misinterpret it, 2) get emotionally triggered, 3) argue with you, and then, 4) go completely insane.


(Re #4: Ok, I exaggerated. The other person will probably just go partly insane.)

And yet, we persist in generalities. We tell people to be more: collaborative, innovative, strategic, flexible, professional and so on.

These words, like the word “nice,” are adjectives. Adjectives describe a person, and his or her personality. But we’re not interested in changing personality. Ever try to change someone’s personality?

What we care about, at least at work, is how others act. So use verbs which describe behavior—and that requires more than just changing “collaborative” to “collaborate.”

You also need to give examples, and you need to be specific.

In other words, act like a reporter. Report on what the person does (or doesn’t do); says (or doesn’t say).

Consider, for example, these reports about two well-known business leaders. Note the specifics.

1) Tim Cook, CEO, Apple:

“When someone was unable to answer a question, Cook would sit without a word while people stared at the table and shifted in their seats. The silence would be so intense and uncomfortable that everyone in the room wanted to back away. Unperturbed, Cook didn’t move a finger as he focused his eyes on his squirming target” (The Wall Street Journal, 3/1/14)


2) Bill Gross, co-founder, Pimco, an investment firm, managing almost $2 trillion:

“When Mr. Gross establishes an investment thesis, he usually doesn’t appreciate dissenting views . . . Once, when a senior investment manager said a bond in Mr. Gross’s fund appeared to be expensive, Gross responded: ‘Ok, buy me more of it.’

“On the trading floor, Mr. Gross doesn’t like employees speaking with him or making eye contact, especially in the morning . . . He prefers silence and at times reprimands those who break it, even if they’re discussing investments.” (The Wall Street Journal, 2/24/14).

Suppose Tim Cook or Bill Gross lived across the street from me. I’d probably describe them as “nice.”

Tip: Stick to specifics.

© Copyright 2014 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.


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