When people criticize negative feedback, they often misunderstand what it means to be an effective leader. We are surrounded by books and articles advising leaders to inspire. Inspirational leadership has therefore become the expectation, and certainly no one will be inspired by the phrase “you’re dumber than a box of rocks.”
Inspiring, however, does not mean sugarcoating. Actually, it often means finding a way to motivate people to fix a problem. Everyone is happy to pass out the candy, but eventually someone must tell the kids that eating all that candy is not healthy. The “cool uncle” is not a leader, your mom is.
A research study of Division I college student athletes found that the best results were achieved by coaches who were neither easygoing nor hard-charging. The best results were obtained by constant reinforcement, but with a democratic style.
The key is that corrective feedback does not have to be spirit-crushing and angry-faced, but it does have to be part of a coaching relationship.
Delivering bad news, unfortunately, is not rewarding, even if it is the right thing to do. The difficult conversation may be met with a defensive and emotional reaction and upset the person you work with. It will definitely not endear you to them, at least not in the short term. It is so much easier to simply focus on the positive.
Somehow, the positive has become a cultural force. It seems that everyone has learned that positive reinforcement is better and has accepted that, incorrectly, as a truism. Feedback about weaknesses is labeled as “negative” thinking and, therefore, frowned upon.
Many mentors would rather stereotype and rationalize than simply ask someone to correct a behavior. Many would rather talk about how “Alice is a typical millennial” rather than tell Alice that she should not be looking at her cell phone during staff meetings.
While positive feedback is effective and should be used heavily, nature certainly has made sure we also pay attention to negative feedback. We quickly learn to recognize nettles because they sting. We only touch a hot plate once.
Studies suggest that if we are managing people early in their careers, we may be best served to ask them to repeat positive behavior and not dwell on their failures. Conversely, if we are mentoring people who aspire to be leaders and are more advanced in their career, but still developing, corrective feedback should not only be part of our coaching but may be very welcome by the mentee. There is no reason to excessively correct beginners or those in the twilight of their careers, but everyone else needs to hear straight talk.
In fact, leaders who fear asking their team members to do something difficult are often perfect examples of the value of perseverance. None of the managers I’ve worked with over the years graduated from an Ivy League school. They built their careers on very hard work and perseverance.
The majority of managers I’ve been associated with over a five-decade career never describe themselves as talented but instead use terms such as dedicated, competitive, and willing to learn and do whatever they can. They often ask “What am I doing wrong?” or “What can I do better?” However, for some reason, many of these leaders are reluctant to ask team members to do the same.
Growth comes out of discomfort. Many successful people embrace discomfort and even take pride in it. Many long-distance runners, for example, describe their practices and races as a “contest of pain.” Just like long-distance runners, successful people know that high levels of achievement never come without some pain.
This column is not a call for negative attitudes nor negative thinking. You do not have to start your day by making a list of the things you do poorly. However, starting your day by telling yourself you are awesome won’t do either.
This is not a call to scream at those you are mentoring about all they are doing wrong. It is also not a good idea to repeatedly tell them they are great up until the day they are told to look for another position due to poor performance.
If you want them to develop into successful professionals, as a mentor you have the obligation to help them recognize and correct weaknesses. You let yourself be the “bad guy” part of the time so that they can develop into more effective professionals. After all, isn’t that the goal? Effective mentors share experiences with others less knowledgeable so they can expand their capabilities for better individual performance and help the organization grow and prosper?
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