During a conversation a couple of weeks ago, an acquaintance complained about his performance review. He comes from a top-tier business school and spent several years in business consulting before joining a rapidly expanding employee-owned technology company. He admitted that in his initial days at the company, he found his aggressive and fast-paced working style to be at odds with the prevailing “laid-back” culture at the company. During the monthly one-on-one meetings with his manager, who is a highly regarded technologist and entrepreneur in his own right, he specifically sought feedback on this difference, and was told that his “contrarian style” was “working well for the company” and that “diverse approaches are critical to innovation”. However, at his year-end appraisal, he received an unsatisfactory rating citing “behavioural factors” that need to be “aligned with company culture” as a key development area for 2019. Now this company does not Bell Curve its employees, so it’s unlikely that his manager’s hand was forced by that absurd methodology. Apart from the impact on his compensation, this has also hurt his faith in his manager, who failed to give him actionable feedback. Given this individual’s skill, track record, and personal brand, I think it is unlikely that he will still be working with this company in December 2019.
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” seems to be the current standard for feedback in both professional or personal relationships. This attitude is driving a dangerous trend – people receive positive feedback from everyone and develop an unrealistic view of their own capabilities and shortcomings. Even coaches – who have a professional responsibility to be critical – have a tendency to sugar-coat criticism and make tragic flaws seem like a benign peculiarity.
Yes, there are people who are resistant to feedback, and some who respond viciously to the slightest suggestion that they have room for improvement – this is a consequence of both ego-protection and the ubiquity of positive feedback. Regardless, I strongly believe that as a manager, coach, or significant other, criticism is an obligation.
As a manager, you have a professional responsibility to ensure that the activities, workplace conduct, and ethics of your direct reports are aligned with your company’s culture and objectives. There can be no two ways about this, and you must deliver specific and actionable criticism to the people who work for you. There may be ways of doing this delicately in terms of phrasing or language, but you need to have a dedicated feedback conversation and the subject must leave the room with the understanding that they have room for improvement; and a clear roadmap to make things better.
As a Coach, it is essential to conduct a coachability analysis of a potential client before you take them on. You are not your Client’s mother. The fees that you charge obligate you to deliver results, and these results almost always involve changes that are incredibly difficult to make. Make it an operating principle to decline or fire a Client who is not open to accepting criticism (unless it is what he’s hiring you for). When you decline or fire a client for a lack of Coachability, ensure that you provide written feedback with a detailed analysis of the factors driving your decision. Oftentimes, it serves as a wake-up call for that client and they tend to circle back in a few weeks with a completely different attitude.
As a Significant Other, your ability to provide actionable feedback is a critical relationship skill that is strongly correlated to your own happiness. As a couple that shares a dwelling or spends a lot of time together, it’s common to have issues that you see differently on. Some of these may be little enough to ignore – but others will require your partner to alter a pattern of behavior. Here, feedback is important to your sanity and the relationship. If one issue festers, other issues that you’re willing to ignore will soon magnify, and you’ll eventually find yourself wondering why you’re in the relationship. Giving actionable criticism at the right time will make your life easier and highlight the level of your partner’s commitment to your happiness. As a significant other, you also have a ringside view to your partner’s struggles. Feedback on self-destructive patterns or other issues are a loving investment in your partner’s success. My wife, for instance, has helped me uncover seemingly benign patterns that have obstructed my fitness goals and affected my productivity. I am a better person for her consistent and honest criticism.
So how should one criticize constructively?
First – talk about a specific pattern of behavior. Mention one recent instant (in the last two days), and at least two previous occasions (in the last 3 months) when this behavior has occurred.
Second – explain your view to this behavior. Why do you think this is an adverse pattern? How does it make you feel? How do you think it makes other people feel or perceive the subject? How do you think this affects the Subject’s life, reputation, or future? How does it affect your (professional or personal) relationship?
Third – Give your opinion on how things could be different and what needs to change. Importantly, ask the Subject what they think about this behavior and how they think it should change.
Fourth – Applaud. When the Subject shows efforts to make this change, make sure you show your appreciation. Thank them for their commitment to their improvement and your relationship.
What if you’re on the receiving end?
Receiving Criticism is tricky, and since most people who give it do not have a structured approach, it’s difficult to act on it. If you find yourself being the subject of an adverse opinion, seek specifics in line with the first three points above.
First – Ask about the the specific instances when this behaviour has occurred.
Second – What is this observer’s view to this behaviour? Why do they think this needs to change?
Third – What changes does he recommend?
If the person criticizing you is not able to articulate his criticism at least in terms of the First and Second points, feel free to dismiss his criticism as frivolous or malicious.
Some people genuinely believe that they are above all criticism and feedback. There is one word for such people – “deluded”. It is impossible for a person to be objective about himself and his behavior. Even Buddhist monks who spend their entire lives dedicated to eliminating desire, ego, and attachment to exist in a state of pure “being” have aggressive feedback systems in the form of collaborative sanghas and a spiritual mentor.
In an article in New Yorker Magazine, Endocrine Surgeon and Bestselling Author Atul Gawande describes the benefits he derived from having an observer in the operating room with him. Gawande writes about excising a cancerous thyroid gland under the watch of Robert Osteen, a retired General Surgeon. Though Gawande, a specialist, admits to private skepticism about benefiting from the feedback from a General Surgeon, he was enlightened by the exercise. Osteen took copious notes during the surgery, and gave Gawande valuable feedback on his technique and posture. This has since evolved into a committed and iterative coaching relationship.
Now if an internationally renowned specialist with an enviable track record can benefit from criticism, the average Joe absolutely needs a Critic.