Respect Employees: Be Tough on Them – A Response

Respect Employees: Be Tough on Them.

I read many more articles than I post on this blog.  One of my filters is that I generally post things with which I agree.

But, in this instance, I feel that this article missed enough nuances for me to want to mount a response.

The basic premise advanced here is that nasty work environments  with lots of negative feedback, are better at advancing complex tasks and get better results.  The prescription here is something less than a toxic work environment but somehow lands with a place where we’d allow employees to feel “anxious and depressed” in the name of achievement.

I agree wholeheartedly that we need to respect employees by giving them honest feedback about what’s working and what’s not working.  Yes that’s the basic work we need to do.  Are we hardwired to be good at this as managers? Not always.  I know that I was terrible at this at the beginning of my management career for a variety of reasons.  One of my greatest ongoing learnings is how to give meaningful feedback about how to get from here to there.

This much I think I know.   We need to stop redoing employees’ work and giving thoughtful effort to what feedback we provide to get the products where we need them.  Time travel back to a time before track changes as a method of giving feedback – it’s too easy to lapse back into re-writing.  Watch how seasoned senior leaders give feedback – some margin notes or a couple of bullets in a cover email.  If the document is so off base that this can’t work, a regrouping meeting may be required and this will be an exercise in shared responsibility in how we failed to land in the right place.

 We also need to let employees do their own learning.

We also need to respect those who give us feedback enough to want to rise the the challenge of what they ask of us.  I learned gobs from a phone coach who was helping me brush up my French skills.  I felt like I was in the conjugation Olympics every Friday morning at 8:30.  She kept me on my toes and yes I did want to please her.  As is elaborated in the Talent Code, as Daniel Coyle kindly confirmed for me by email this week:  you should avoid coaches who treat you like eager waiters and seek out coaches who scare you a little.

Can this cross the line into someone who belittles or humiliates? Absolutely not.  Are environments where employees feel worn down and depressed ones that are also creative hotbeds? I find this hard to believe.

The opposite actually seems to be true – rather that our brains shut down when we feel we are under attack and reject feedback when we are feeling threatened.

“… What this means at work and at home is that we have a very hard time listening to someone if we are angry with them, or if we feel they are treating us unfairly.   And in fact, this is true.   It’s almost impossible to take feedback from someone who you feel is treating you unfairly, even if the feedback makes perfect sense.  And this turns out to be one of the primary reasons we reject even useful feedback.”

We also now know that the praise to criticism ratio is very high for high performing teams: for high performing teams it is over 5 to one. for negative teams it is three negative comments for every one.  Does this ratio change over time? Yes most likely it does with more expert performers who will need more targeted feedback on things to improve as they reach mastery.

So in sum, yes, employees do need the straight goods on what is working or not working. What we also need is:

  • The ability to articulate what isn’t working while providing the tools to get from here to there.
  • Feedback that leaves the door open for a shared responsibility for how we got to where we are and along with the hope that we will get where we need to go, together.
  • Feedback from a source we respect – that won’t pander but won’t demean.
  • A work environment which spends more time affirming what is working than what is not working.  To paraphrase a wise colleague, you can’t over do positive feedback.  When you do have to show up with the news that things didn’t go so well, you will have the credibility to be heard.
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