Don’t Sugarcoat Negative Feedback
September 17, 2013 Editor 0
The old rap against coaches and consultants: they borrow your watch to tell you the time.
And yet I’d bet anything that 90% of the coaches reading this hung out their shingles with an eye toward helping executives grow and overcome impediments to success. So why do they bear the stigma of being a cajoling cheerleader rather than a conscientious change agent?
The answer is that, in the same way that hungry rats learn to navigate the blind alleys of a maze in their search for food, coaches, consultants, and other change agents learn that punishment most often follows their constructive criticism. Conversely, when they stroke the egos of clients, rewards come raining down. Managers fall victim to the same temptation: it’s much more fun (and in the short term, rewarding) to praise your direct reports than to deliver negative feedback.
The bad news is that if you’re a consultant or coach, folks will tire of having smoke blown at them and, sooner or later, react negatively. They’re paying for reasoned critiques, and chronic evasiveness eventually gets on their nerves. And if you’re a manager, you can’t only rely on praise. (Although of course, praise is just as important as criticism, and needs to be delivered in larger doses.)
First, remember: Mary Poppins don’t know squat. A spoonful of sugar does not help the “medicine” go down. Who hasn’t been enraged by a putz who wanted to deliver criticism and started his spiel by saying, “With all due respect, Adam…” Don’t folks know that in the argot of the business world, “with all due respect” means “screw you”?
This isn’t an opinion of mine; it’s an empirical fact that Dr. Edward E. Jones, the psychologist who (literally) wrote the book on ingratiation, demonstrated: When evaluators gave critical reviews to experimental subjects role-playing employees, those who expressed what was wrong immediately were significantly more respected than those who began with praise and ended with, “the bad news is…”
If you want to help a person change restrict your sugarcoating to breakfast cereals. Deliver constructive feedback rapidly in its raw form. This doesn’t mean harshly; there’s a way to soften blows without delaying them if you strive to be empathic. Just never make it seem like you’re avoiding hard cold facts. All that does is make the facts seem worse than they are.
And yet, proceed cautiously with established stars. Somewhere in the collective unconscious of coaches and CEOs lives the notion that being young equates to being thin-skinned. Fact: There is often an inverse correlation between tenure on the fast track and tolerance of criticism. Professor Chris Argyris demonstrated that many “stars” who effortlessly ascend the career ladder are shockingly unable to handle negative news. What Argyris showed was that managers who “never failed” — who were hot shots in school and then on the job — were often devastated by constructive criticism and actually sought to ignore or deny it. Conversely, if you’ve learned, through failure, that you don’t die from being criticized, you take it as it is intended: Information to learn from.
So know your target: If a person has never performed poorly, handle with care. Someone who obtained a degree from the School of Hard Knocks before coming to your company can take feedback straight, no chaser.
Resist the urge to prophesy. The absolute worst thing a CEO, coach, or consultant can do when offering constructive criticism to someone is to provide a timetable for the process that a person who must change should be expected to conform to. Saying, “Most of my clients can get their anger management issues checked in less than 6 months…” adds insult to injury. You may think it’s encouraging to say, “Don’t worry; it’s a quick process,” but what you’re doing is adding fuel to a negative fire.
Similarly, don’t minimize the challenge. When you critique someone with a history of success you have to assume that the flaws you see in them are (a) entrenched, and, (b) something they have long grappled with to suppress or get past. Saying, “No big deal” to that sort of issue can scare the socks off someone who knows that what you’re targeting for change is an issue they have battled unsuccessfully for years.
To help someone with a problem that hasn’t derailed an otherwise productive career, ask them how they believe they can best cope with it. After they give you their (terrified) perspective say, “Well, I have some suggestions for reducing the time and energy you might expect to devote this matter.”
Any and all of my success as a coach is because I internalized an observation by Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” Constructive criticism and your plan(s) for having someone address the flaws you see emanate from your worldview. To have these well-intended messages hit home, you must understand your audience and tailor your feedback to their needs.
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