Lessons I Learned From The Mafia: Mastering Employee Feedback

Darren Kanthal
7 min readSep 25, 2023

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You told ’em nothin’, and they got nothin’

That’s what Robert De Nero’s character, Jimmy Conway, says to Henry Hill in the movie Goodfellas after he gets ‘pinched’ for selling illegal cigarettes for the mafia.

As I was rewatching this classic film, it dawned on me that SO many leaders are just like Henry Hill — telling their employees nothin’, and providing no regular feedback at all. And just like the cops ‘got nothin’ from Henry about the operation or who he was working for, your employees who get nothing from you are left wondering if they’re doing a good job, are they in your good graces or the dog house, are their jobs on the line, or a whole host of other judgmental and insecure thoughts that run through their minds.

Why is this?

Why is giving positive feedback so elusive for some leaders?

I mean, is it hard to say thank you, nice job, or some other form of praise?!

I wholeheartedly agree that you are not responsible for how someone feels — that’s on the individual. Yet, I also wholeheartedly believe you, as the leader, play an extremely influential role. If your actions are negatively impacting your employees — it’s on you to course-correct.

If you fall into this category of not providing regular feedback — I got you. We’re going to make this easy.

Here are my top 5 tips — utilizing the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!), which I love to use.

1. Schedule regular meetings with your direct reports… damnit!

No matter how many leaders I speak with who don’t hold regular 1x1s, I’ve never heard a sufficient reason as to why. Irrespective of your reasoning — stop it. Stop it right now! These 1x1s are critical for your people to have time with you, hear your thoughts firsthand, see your facial expressions and mannerisms, and experience you both as the person and leader you are. If you are denying your team this experience, you’re doing a great disservice to everyone involved — you, them, the department, your company, and your customers. Period!

In addition to what your direct reports get, you have the opportunity to experience the same. You get to hear how they approach problem-solving, learn if they have the capacity to grow (i.e.: are they a future leader or, will they be more of the worker bee that you can rely on — or not — and maybe you need to make plans to manage them out of the business?). You can also have them provide you with a running list of priorities, accomplishments, and anticipated challenges that you need to be aware of.

Depending on the size of your team and # of direct reports, a bare minimum of 30 minutes every 2 weeks is recommended — an hour is even better.

2. Provide positive feedback in real-time

As a leader, I’m willing to bet you’re cc’d on a host of emails with people self-promoting or promoting others on the team. It’s pretty easy to reply all — or just to the immediate people involved — to let them know you received the email and are appreciative of their efforts.

I don’t know about you, but I was taught pretty early in life that please and thank you go a LONG way — and it’s downright required to be polite and courteous. If you’re not saying thank you to people regularly — you’re missing the easiest way to ‘tell em somethin’.

As a leader, are you somehow exempt from these simple practices? Do you go to a restaurant and demand the wait staff serve you without any sort of social grace? (If you do this — we DEFINITELY need to speak!!!)

Your direct reports deserve the peace of mind to regularly know how they’re doing Here are some ideas:

Thank you for your efforts

I really appreciate you taking this on.

Great job!

I like the way you’re thinking.

Keep it up.

3. Keep ongoing notes to refer to at a later date

For most companies that engage in traditional performance management and have regular reviews — annually, quarterly, and bi-annually — there’s a great opportunity that’s often missed to keep a running tally of notes to refer to later.

All too often, these reviews are seen as burdensome. The #1 reason — leaders don’t take notes throughout the review period and therefore rely on what they can remember from the most recent past and then smack at the keyboard trying to get the review completed as quickly as possible.

In the case of an annual review, it’s possible I’ve done something great in Q1 that is forgotten, and all that’s remembered is my mistake and misstep from Q4.

The best way to avoid this is to lean into whatever your personal systems and processes are and keep a running list of notes highlighting what they’ve done well and also areas of growth and opportunity. Whether that’s hand-written notes, OneNote, emails sent to yourself, Word or Excel Docs, etc.

In fact, I’ve got a great tracker that puts equal responsibility on the leader and the direct report. Email me and I’ll be happy to send it to you.

4. Provide constructive criticism in real-time

Above I focused on the positive side of feedback, and here, let’s be real and also acknowledge people need to know when they’ve messed up. If someone had spinach in their teeth, would you tell them or let them walk around looking foolish? (If you wouldn’t tell them — we DEFINITELY need to speak!!)

The same applies to letting people know when they’ve come up short, failed, made a mistake, or any other misstep. It’s your job to address these issues and talk it through. Ask them questions to better understand their perspective and how things unfolded for them. Share with them what it was like from your side and how it affected the bigger picture.

This is not a moment to chastise and admonish. Instead, it’s a time to be compassionate and humane. Mistakes happen all the time — some big and catastrophic with real consequences, and others smaller leading to irritation, inconvenience, and annoyance. Either way, chances are they’re beating themselves up even more than you could.

As the leader, it’s your job to resolve this as soon as possible. If their job is not on the line — tell them!! The #1 concern of almost all of my clients, including C-level, is the fear of being fired and losing their job for making a mistake. Do you know who can squash those fears? You!!!

5. Be genuine your feedback

This comes in a variety of ways — sharing a meal or coffee, company swag, a gift card, a promotion, or formal kudos (some companies have this, and if yours does — how often do you use it?).

I had a client who was well-read and gifted books. Those who knew him best also knew when they received a book from him — it was genuine.

Another client got to know her employees personally and then gifted them things that she knew they liked. For the avid note-taker, a personalized notebook. For the artist or professional doodler, colored pencils or markers. Yet again, people on the receiving end knew she took the time and was showing genuine interest and concern.

Instead of tellin’ them nothin’…

I recently listened to an episode of Mel Robbins’ podcast in which she had her husband, Chris as a guest. He told a heartfelt and emotional story about a challenging time in his life — when he looked into the eyes of the person in the reflection in the mirror, he saw someone falling short, failing, and not living up to standards. As Chris shared this story in tears, Mel (his wife) said she saw the exact opposite — a man who was a great father and husband, a man doing the best in what was an otherwise crappy situation.

And here’s the kicker, Chris said to her, “You never told me.” Ugh! Gut wrench!!

The same holds true for your employees, colleagues, friends, and family — if you don’t tell them, they will never know.

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Darren Kanthal

Darren is a values-driven leadership and career coach who supports mid-career leaders with transformative career action plans and candid coaching conversations.