How to Deliver a Tough Message Well

A sharp message and tone-—used sparingly, privately, and deliberately—-is a necessary and powerful leadership tool. If, as a manager or leader, you haven’t yet found a “sharp edge” that suits you, you’re probably overly nice or overly harsh. Both can cause problems for you and your team.

Early in my career, I was the recipient of some incredibly effective constructive criticism, and I’ll never forget it.

I was then a corporate executive. At one point, I was managing a multimillion-dollar project that had hit some major stumbling blocks. One evening, Chuck, who founded the company and was its CEO, happened to get on the elevator I was on. It was just the two of us. He was an icon in the industry, in part for being “nice.” After a pause, he looked me in the eye and said, “I hear your project has some issues.” He paused, and I nodded. Then he added, “We both know too many people who left this company the fast way when they over-promised and under-delivered. I’d hate to lose someone as promising as you that same way.” Pause. Wow. “Make it work, and let me know what you need.” Silence. “Thanks, Chuck.” Super long pause. Ding. Off I went.

It worked. While it was hard to hear, I took it as “fuel” to get my project back on track. The message was effective because it was sharp, authentic, and he offered not only consequences but also support. It was neither mean nor rude. It was clear.

These days I work with many executive clients who have yet to master their sharper edge. It’s actually a rampant problem. They’ve gotten feedback that either they’re “too mean” or they “need to be liked.” As their coach, I’ve discovered three tactics that help improve both styles:

1. Use toughness sparingly. In the example, Chuck wasn’t prodding or micromanaging me. He left a sharp sting, but it only needed to be delivered once. It’s 18 years later and I still remember it verbatim.

2. Deliver the tough message privately. No one else was on the elevator. It was NOT in front of my team, his team, or anyone else. It was one-on-one, which is the way I recommend my clients deliver critical or even tough messages. Praise in public; punish in private, as the saying goes.

3. Be thoughtful and deliberate—and not reactive. Critical or sharp-edged messages delivered in the heat of the moment are always a mistake. Chuck had clearly thought about his sharp edge and was good at using it. If you’re offering criticism, you owe it to the recipient to carefully consider your words.

Find your tough but fair (and non-reactive) self. Use it with authenticity; offer consequences, and support, as needed; and deliver criticism sparingly, privately, and deliberately. Once you’ve honed your sharp edge, it will help you cut to the heart of the matter with clarity and empathy.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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