Honesty != Psychological Safety

Dinosaur failing to give constructive feedback; humans quite visibly on the defensive

Dinosaur failing to give constructive feedback; humans quite visibly on the defensive

It’s Common Knowledge1 that the key to Psychological Safety is Honesty; being direct with the people you work with about your trials and tribulations; being open to hearing feedback from others.

This is half true.

The other half is equally important, whether you’re a Manager needing to have a tough conversation about performance, or a senior Individual Contributor (IC) needing to have a conversation about a …sub-optimal… piece of code under review.

This other half I’m referring to is the first of a number of crucial words with semantic baggage: Compassionate. If your first reaction to this word is negative, I thought a lot about this choice, but nothing else quite fit:

  • “Constructive” implies that you can only speak truthfully when you have some improvement to suggest, which suffocates some important conversations.
  • “Positive” implies you can’t have talk about something unless you can frame it in a positive light - closer, but still restricts communication.
  • “Brutal/Radical/Direct” - if you’re using these words, then you’ve got the first part of the benefits of honesty, but you may also say “some (most) people find my advice difficult to hear”. Read on.
  • “Refreshing” doesn’t add anything except a belief that honesty is something that other people don’t do.

You may well be able to think of another word that fits (that’s the wonder of language!); Sensitive fits well enough, and has even more baggage than compassion! Its basic definition is “quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences”. Both mean having an awareness of how your words will hit home for the recipient. That’s hardly a bad thing!

What Compassionate Honesty Means

Compassionate Honesty for me means thinking about how best to phrase your honesty so that it has the best chance of being absorbed. Constructive Criticism is Compassionate because it allows the recipient to focus on what they can improve rather than what they did wrong.

Compassionate Honesty Doesn’t mean avoiding subjects that might upset people. It means maximising the chance that you can say what you need to say without upsetting someone.

Some of you at this point may be thinking “Ah, I’ve heard of this - it’s Radical Candor”, and you are indeed correct. The group that coined the term even note that they started off using “Compassionate” as well. The linked article perfectly explains the difference between Brutal Honesty/Candour and Compassionate Honesty/Candour; I have no intention of rehashing it. Instead, I want to focus on why the “Compassionate” part is important not just because it’s common decency - it’s also far more likely to result in positive impact.

Why “Brutal” Honesty doesn’t work

“Brutal Honesty”, and its various guises, works if and only if:

  • Everyone is confident in their work,
  • Everyone knows all their colleagues,
  • Everyone expects direct and unfiltered feed back at any time, and, crucially
  • There is an equal power dynamic across the whole group.

Environments where All of the above are true are pretty limited; by and large you will only come across this early in a startup, where the balance of power is all much more even. Later on, you might say it’s a flat structure from a Line Management perspective, but that guy in the corner who’s been there since the start still has more authority than the newest hire.

When they don’t all hold true, then people in higher positions of authority (be that by Job Title or pure experience/time with the organisation) need to be more careful about how they communicate. The greater your authority, the more likely that the person you’re talking to feels uncomfortable with your Direct approach.

Why? It’s a long, long topic of its own, but essentially it’s because the conversation isn’t equal. You’re the CTO, or the Engineering Manager, or simply “the person everyone goes to to get stuff fixed”; your opinion matters a lot in the organisation, and, open culture or not, it’s very hard not to go on the defensive if one of these people is directly challenging you on something you did. You might feel that it’s an equal conversation, but they may well not agree, and to make matters worse, they probably won’t tell you either.

The key thing here is that once people go on the defensive, they stop listening. Continuing to listen when you feel personally challenged is Extremely hard, and is the subject of reams of books, blogs, and talks. It’s one of the hardest things about Management, and we’re Trained to deal with it. If you want to maximise the chance that the person you’re talking to will listen and take on board what you have to say, you have to ensure that they don’t enter that space.

So what Does work?

In essence, it boils down to three steps:

  1. Determine the size the power imbalance between you and the person you need to be honest with.
  2. Choose the appropriate level of Semantic Sugar2 with which to coat what you have to say
  3. [Optional] Follow up with some open questions to confirm that your perspective was heard and/or get feedback on why your correction was required.

Let’s say the scenario is that you’re a Senior IC reviewing some code that’s been submitted by someone new at the company, and they haven’t taken into account some quirk of the system.

The core message that needs communicating is “You did this wrong - you need to consider this element of the system in future”.

What Semantic Sugar you need to apply depends on the recipient. Are they relatively senior, and just don’t know the system fully yet? If you know from previous interactions that they like getting straight to the point, then you may well just need to prefix with “Hey, just so you’re aware, our system does this thing, so this code will have these unintended side effects.”

If they’re more junior, or feeling less secure in their position for whatever reason (there can be many), or the power/authority gap is particularly large, then I would strongly advise delivering the feedback more gently.


  • Leading with some positive feedback (“Criticism Sandwich”): Reinforcing good behaviour before suggesting change is an age-old tactic. Be careful to avoid always pairing negative feedback with positive feedback, or you could accidentally train people into always expecting a “but”. If you take this approach, you have to commit to regularly giving positive feedback without following with a suggestion or criticism to avoid this.
  • Let them take you on a journey: Instead of telling them what’s wrong, ask them if they can talk you through what they’ve done. Ask questions at appropriate points to help them see/create a natural segue onto the point you need to make. This is great for small niggly things, or a single middle-sized issue. It doesn’t work well for big problems or when there’s LOTS wrong, as it may feel overwhelming.

If you don’t know for sure how they like to communicate, err on the side of indirect - more damage is done by being too direct and putting someone on the defensive than is done by discovering through trial and error that this person gets irritated with people who don’t get straight to the point.

The key here is that the bigger the authority gap, the harder it is to get a clear, truthful response about something that makes that person uncomfortable. They may even say things like “I like brutal honest/getting direct feedback” because it’s what they think you want to hear, even if they aren’t comfortable with it. You have to observe the person and how they actually take feedback before taking shortcuts.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that there are two sides to every situation. Yes, there are times when someone just hasn’t followed advice, and is wholly to blame for their own mistakes, but in the vast majority of cases, they were missing some crucial information or training. Every time someone needs constructive feedback is an opportunity to improve process and communication to avoid future repeats. Ask them: what could we have done differently to help you avoid this mistake? Do you have any questions about the approach we’d like you to take? Can you see the benefit? This serves the added bonus of confirming if they’ve heard the feedback and have a willingness to act upon it.

What if it’s really important?

For big things, or if the subject is particularly on edge already, I favour what’s effectively an inverse Criticism Sandwich.

Start with confirmation that they’ve done something wrong and this is constructive feedback: “Hey, I was going though this\talking to them\have observed you doing that, and I wanted to talk to you about it”.

Follow up immediately with positivity. They’re probably feeling quite defensive right now, very nervous, and possibly aggressive: “I just want to be clear: You are not in trouble. Everyone makes mistakes, and you learn the most from making them. We believe strongly in a culture of support and assistance, not placing blame.”

If appropriate to the situation, make it clear that you’re talking to them as much to get their perspective as to provide feedback. This can apply to coding/production issues as well as cultural stuff: what led them to release to production without properly testing their work? Was it time pressure? A lack of awareness of the consequences? Entire Books have been written about how “Human Error” is a fallacy; there’s generally a reason why someone made a mistake, and very often those reasons are resolvable. Even in the most serious cultural breaches it’s worth understanding why someone did what they did, if only to ensure that you screen for that mentality better during future recruitment.


  • Psychological Safety as a core element of your culture is extremely important, BUT
  • There’s more to psychological safety than just being honest - you have to think about how your honesty will be heard.
  • Be Compassionate: hearing about something you did wrong is hard.
  • The more authority you have than the feedback recipient, the more aware of how your words will land you need to be; authority covers more than just job titles.
  • It’s not difficult to give feedback compassionately, there are simple rules to follow.
  • Giving compassionate feedback will markedly improve how well people will respond to your suggestions and criticism.

As a final note, please remember that you don’t get to choose whether your words upset someone else. You do get to choose the words you use to maximise the chance that they won’t. If you get it wrong, and you could have done better, apologise (a proper apology, not “I’m sorry that’s how you interpreted my words”). It really does make a difference.

  1. “Common Knowledge” is a bit of a fallacy - the chances are that a lot of the things you hold to be universally true aren’t. This is known as the False Consensus Effect ↩︎

  2. Like “Syntactic Sugar”; essentially, tactics and wording that allow you to present your statement in a nicer way. ↩︎