“Hard words are very rarely useful. Real firmness is good for everything.” –Alexander Hamilton
June 1993: Amy and I were designing a training workshop. We both worked for a leadership development firm, and the particular program we were building was for team leaders. The module we were focused on was called “Delivering Feedback.”
We had created a set of strategies to help team leaders provide constructive feedback to their team members. Now we were trying to write a script for a video that would show a team leader using the strategies effectively.
But somehow, the script wouldn’t write. Any words we put into the team leader’s mouth as she “delivered feedback” sounded either too harsh or too patronizing. And the team member seemed ridiculously compliant and appreciative as he “received feedback.”
It was 5:30 pm and the late-afternoon sun was just starting to glare through the office window when Amy, who had been capturing ideas on the whiteboard, tossed the dry-erase marker on the table and sat down.
“Here’s the problem,” she said. “I don’t care how mature you are or how tactful they are. If someone says, ‘I want to give you some feedback,’ your reaction is going to be, ‘Screw you.’”
Amy’s words have stuck with me for twenty years. I was reminded of them recently while participating in a LinkedIn discussion titled “Tough bosses and critical feedback making a comeback?”
Ray Williams, initiator of the discussion, points to a recent flurry of articles suggesting that employees actually prefer “constructive criticism” to praise. He counters this view with neuroscience research indicating that negative feedback—even when dressed up as “constructive” and delivered super-tactfully— automatically triggers the brain’s defensive mechanisms. It can’t improve performance, he says, because it isn’t even heard. In Amy’s terms, the “Screw you” reaction takes over.
But doesn’t a leader sometimes have to be tough? Don’t you sometimes have to tell a subordinate that he or she performed badly, without sugar-coating? Most of the LinkedIn discussion participants say yes.
I think, however, that there’s a mix-up at the bottom of this whole debate about feedback. We assume the choice is between tough and nice; actually, it’s between backward- and forward-looking.
Confession: I don’t take criticism well. I’m a perfectionist, easily crushed by negative evaluations, and I usually hear that muffled “Screw you” inside my head when someone tells me I did something wrong … except in one area: I’ve taken dance classes my whole life (ballet, when young) and have never jibbed at even the harshest criticism there. I mean, ballet teachers are known to whack students with sticks—something managers rarely do! When whacked, one simply makes an adjustment and carries on.
Why should that be? Eventually I realized that, for me, it’s not about whether feedback is tough or nice, but whether it’s aimed at a) pointing out what I did wrong, or b) directing me on what to do differently. The former is focused on the past—which I can’t change, so why bother listening to anyone’s opinion about it, no matter how justified? The latter is focused on the future—which I can change, so I’m all ears when told how I might improve it.
In a dance class, the teacher doesn’t wait until it’s over to present you with an evaluation. She’ll yell at you right when you do something wrong and tell you to do it again—now!—and more often than not, give you a nod and a “Better” after your second attempt.
Think of an incredibly tough teacher, coach, or manager whom you remember with appreciation and fondness. Think about his or her feedback. Was it mostly, “You did bad. See you later”? Or mostly, “Do this, not that—and I’ll be watching to see that you do”? The first is feed-BACK, and pretty useless no matter how tactfully phrased. The second is feed-FORWARD, and always useful even if untactfully phrased.
If your team members (or children, or spouse) don’t seem to be hearing your feedback, try this: Put “Next time” in front. Then, be as pleasant or blunt as the situation demands. For example:
- With a very competent team member who has handled a problem in a slightly clumsy way: “Next time, please give Susan a heads-up that you’re going to make a change to the process”; or, “Next time, come talk to me first and we can strategize about how to deal with this type of situation.”
- With an employee who has persistently failed on a key responsibility and received multiple warnings: “Next time, get the daily report to Accounting by 10:00 am. If you don’t, you will be terminated.”
The first example is pleasant; the second is blunt. But both are firmly forward-looking—and likely to be heard.
What’s your advice? How do you turn feed-BACK into feed-FORWARD? How do you make constructive criticism hearable?