Ever had that awkward moment when someone lets you know that you have broccoli between your teeth? It’s not the most comfortable experience–and for a moment, you’re likely going to feel very embarrassed–but deep down, you know they did you a huge favor. 

This is a perfect metaphor for a critical concept in leadership: giving uncomfortable, but valuable feedback. It’s something I teach early and often in all my leadership courses, as I believe it’s essential for those who want to become a “best boss ever.” 

The leaders we describe as the “best bosses ever” almost always give honest feedback. 

Over the years, I’ve learned (and heard) what makes a great leader, and there are a few traits that seem to come up time and time again–and this is one of them. The best bosses consistently excel at giving what I call “broccoli between the teeth” feedback. This type of feedback is always about honesty and care. It’s often difficult to deliver, but it’s so important to that employee’s growth. It’s not necessarily about the business but about doing the right thing for your people. Seriously, imagine going through a whole meeting with something embarrassing on your face or stuck in your teeth and nobody tells you? Ever realized that you’ve been walking around for a few hours with that toilet paper stuck to your shoe? That’s how it feels to miss out on honest feedback. 

As I mentioned, effective feedback focuses first on the individual and their development, not just on improving business outcomes. This may be a side effect of the feedback you’re providing, but it isn’t central to the reasoning behind it. 

When delivering this type of feedback, the top priority should be on your team members and their growth. When people feel that their growth is prioritized, they are more likely to embrace feedback and improve. On the other hand, if feedback feels like an item being checked off a to-do list, it loses its effectiveness. 

Let me share a personal example: Earlier in my career, I was delivering a workshop and one of the women I was working with gave me some tough feedback. She said I used self-deprecating humor too much, which was undermining my credibility. It was hard to hear, but incredibly valuable. She didn’t sugarcoat it and it couldn’t have been easy for her to tell me that, but her intentions were clear: she wanted to see me succeed and this was the feedback I needed to hear most.

And I have no doubt that it was critical in getting me to where I am today. In fact, I’d say it was transformative. From that moment on, I became more mindful of my language and how it affected my professional image. It led to significant improvements in my presentations. This is the essence of “broccoli between your teeth” feedback: uncomfortable, but ultimately for your benefit. 

One of the key insights from the Best Boss Ever podcast is that best bosses create environments where their employees feel safe to grow–and I heard this quite often from top performers. Growth can be uncomfortable, like stretching muscles you haven’t used in awhile, but in a supportive environment, this discomfort becomes excitement, and essential for career and personal progression. 

I like to spend most of my time talking about what makes a “best boss ever,” but we can’t talk about those incredible leaders without talking about the other end of the spectrum: the worst bosses. These are the leaders who provide feedback from a place of irritation or superiority. 

Often, I hear that these managers use fear or what they believe to be “tough love” to push their team, but it usually just leads to disengagement, or worse, burnout. 

One of the most common characteristics of poor feedback is vagueness. Bad bosses often drop hints, use body language, or wait until performance reviews to bring up issues. This approach leaves employees guessing and unsure about how to improve. Real-time, specific feedback is far more effective. 

In these toxic environments, feedback is used as a weapon. Employees are less likely to grow because they don’t want to emulate a leader that they dislike or fear. To develop an environment that’s conducive to true personal and professional growth, employees need to feel like their boss is rooting for them, not just pointing out their flaws. 

Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle: the “good” bosses. 

These leaders may be vague or delay feedback, hoping the employee pics up on subtle cues. While this is better than no feedback, it’s not as effective as the direct, caring approach seen often with those we describe as “best bosses.”

Good feedback isn’t just about pointing out what’s wrong; it’s also about guiding employees towards a better future state. I use the idea of “current/future state” a lot in coaching. For example, I may say, here’s where things are now (current state), and here’s how we can improve (feedback) to get to where we want them to be (future state).

Instead of saying something like, “you need to be more authentic,” try explaining what authenticity looks like in practice. Provide concrete steps that can help them get to where you want them to be. 

As leaders, it’s our job to help our teams grow, and that often means giving uncomfortable feedback. So the next time you see “broccoli” between an employee’s teeth, have the guts to tell them–it’ll make a huge difference. 

What do you think? Join me on LinkedIn and let’s continue the conversation. 

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