Authority Magazine - 12/28/23: Michael Sonbert On How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful

Jan 05, 2024

 You can read the original article here!


Michael Sonbert Of Skyrocket Education/Rebel Culture On How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful


Don’t make it personal. Feedback is simply about bridging the gap between what you agreed to and where you currently are. Nothing more.

Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sonbert.

Michael Sonbert is a bestselling author, speaker, performance coach, educator, endurance athlete, autism dad, and the founder and CEO of Skyrocket Education and Rebel Culture. Michael has dedicated the past 20 years to coaching, partnering with, and researching leaders from public schools to Fortune 500 companies. Partners include Google, Oakley, Northwell Health Systems, Hormel Foods, The University of Notre Dame, and Paul Mitchell Schools.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Mybackstory is very long as it took me a while to find my passion. The short version is that I’m a former heavy metal singer and bartender turned English teacher turned founder and CEO of two companies. I started my companies because so much of the “coaching” I saw in the education and corporate spaces wasn’t coaching at all. At least not by my definition. The coaches I observed and worked with were friendly suggestion-makers who didn’t make their people better. I wanted to change that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Years ago, I was working with Detroit Public Schools. I was slated to present to close to 500 of their teachers, but their assistant superintendent was worried that because I wasn’t from Detroit and didn’t have a reputation there at the time, that the teachers wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say. So, I asked if they could get thirty students in a classroom the day before the event. I was going to teach a lesson to them, we’d record it, and play it for the teachers to show them, not just that I knew my stuff but what their kids are capable of as well.

The presenter before me had two hours. Almost the entire room was working on other things, talking, and disengaged during that session.

When I took the stage, we played the video. The room was silent except for some teachers who were crying about how amazing their students were.

That’s how we operate at both Skyrocket and Rebel Culture. We do the harder thing, and we put ourselves out there, all to make change for others.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Your readers might not love this answer, but it’s not about gift cards or parties or happy hours. It’s about being relentless about messaging your values, your mission, and the impact you’re looking to have. Yes, you have to know when to take your foot off the gas. You can’t be on 100 always. But people want to be a part of something great. So, make your something great.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I had a boss who didn’t take his parking spot right next to the building. Instead, he parked as far away from the building as possible and, in the dark, before anyone else arrived, he picked up any trash he saw in the parking lot. He believed we deserved to arrive to a spotless environment. Think about that. The highest paid person on the team acted as a trash collector. He didn’t believe it was beneath him. That’s leadership.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

A friend from a coaching group I’m in says, “Treat your body like a business.” He’s relentless about what he eats, his workouts, his meditation and so on. This stuff matters so much. Being fit, envisioning the outcome you want, all helps when the stakes go up. I do box-breathing (four seconds in, hold for four seconds, four seconds out, hold for four seconds, repeat), lots of visualization, and a lot of self-talk. Also, I read something years ago that before a big talk, to tell myself that I’m excited and not nervous. The sensations are the same. But changing that narrative changes the experience.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

It’s part of the DNA of both of my teams. Feedback is integral to making people better. Too often, employees are left guessing about how well they’re doing. Not only do we engage in this internally, we coach our partners to do the same.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Here’s what often happens.

Leaders don’t spell out expectations. They feel funny doing so as their people are professionals and they don’t want to seem nitpicky or micro-managey. So, they let people operate however they choose. This mostly doesn’t go well, but now the leader is in the very tough spot of trying to give people feedback and hold them accountable to expectations that don’t exist. When they do summon the courage to give feedback, it’s often met with pushback or annoyance. Employees think, “I’ve been doing it that way for months and now it’s an issue?”

This breaks down culture, makes employees skittish as they don’t know what to expect, and causes employees to think the leader is making things up as they go along.

Direct and honest feedback, aligned to what the team has agreed upon, is integral if a team is going to achieve its goals. But it has to be directly aligned to what’s been agreed to.

For instance, if a leader has set the expectation and then messaged relentlessly, that we’re problem-solvers on our team, it’s exponentially easier for that leader to provide feedback to a team member who’s blaming or gossiping or not looking for solutions.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

  1. Ensure you’ve set crystal clear expectations.
  2. Align all feedback to those expectations.
  3. Use data/direct quotes vs. what you think.
  4. Ensure there are wins or glows to share as well. Not to soften the blow but to ensure the person is reminded of the good things that are happening as well.
  5. Don’t make it personal. Feedback is simply about bridging the gap between what you agreed to and where you currently are. Nothing more.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Simple. Don’t do this. Feedback should be delivered face-to-face. A video call is fine, but to your point, when giving feedback, we should be looking for agreement or disagreement in the other person’s body language and facial expressions so we can address those things. Email is where feedback goes to die. It rarely goes well.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Feedback should happen in recurring one-to-one meetings. And, if something is feedback-worthy, either as a behavior to be reinforced or one to be redirected, feedback should occur as needed. Face-to-face as I mentioned earlier.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Wow. What a question. No pressure.

I’ll stick with my first field and say that teachers in our country’s cities are wildly underpaid. I would ensure that every teacher with more than ten years’ experience is making a minimum of 100,000 dollars per year. In other countries, teachers are some of the most respected people in the work force. In the states, not so much. More well-paid teachers means more high-quality candidates entering the field, it means teachers aren’t working two and three jobs to pay the bills, and it means they’re paid what they’re worth which everyone deserves.

More satisfied and respected teachers means hundreds of thousands if not millions of students benefit.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorites is, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” I don’t know who coined it, but it’s a good reminder that if we want a different result, our actions need to change. Otherwise, we’ll get exactly what we currently have.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Absolutely. They can check me out at, and then on LinkedIn here and IG here.

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

Thanks for having me. I love talking about feedback. Have a great 2024!

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