Watered Downed Feedback is Killing America

I said this before, but you don’t want to hear it.  No one cares about what you have to say, unless it’s telling them how good they are.

People can’t handle critical feedback, unless it’s set up in a mechanism where they expect it and desire it.  That’s the crux, hardly anyone has that mechanism and while most people tell you they want critical feedback they don’t have the makeup to handle it.

Here are the types of “critical” feedback people can handle:

“You’re doing a good job, would love it if you could get that big project off the ground. That would really help us out!”

Here’s what you really want to say, critically, but can’t:

“You do good at things I tell you to do, and all basic day to day duties of the job. I need more from this position and from you, and I’m willing to help get you there. I need someone who can take a project from scratch and kill it, without me having to babysit the entire thing. You’re not doing that, and that’s what I really need you to do. Are you willing do that?” 

Same message, right?  You do some stuff good, but one critical aspect of the job is not getting done. The problem is, the first level feedback is given 99.9% of the time, because managers and leaders know if you deliver the second level, that person will be destroyed!

They’ll think you think they suck, and they’ll start looking for a job.  When in reality, you were just trying to give them legitimate feedback. Real feedback. Something that would actually help them reach expectations.

So, how do you get to a point to be able to deliver ‘real’ feedback?

It’s starts with your hiring process. In the interview process you need to set people up to understand that your organization delivers real feedback, and they must be able to accept critical feedback and not crumble.  This is a team, it’s about getting better, not hurt egos.  Half will crumble in the interview, which is a good thing, you don’t want them anyway.

For those that you think have the self-insight enough to handle it, you need to do it before hire. Give them the real feedback from their interview, and see how they reply, how they interact.  This will show you what you can expect from them when they get this level of feedback as an employee.

For the employees already working, you need to start by showing them and giving them examples of what true feedback looks like. You need to coach and train your leaders on how to deliver this, on an ongoing basis.  You then need to have coaches and mentors sit in with all leaders when they begin to deliver this feedback.

Part of your leader training is to show them how to accept feedback from their teams as well. If you want to dish it out, you have to accept it as well. Training and coaching employees on how to ‘manage up’ is key to making this successful. This isn’t about blowing people up. It’s about delivering true feedback to help them get better, and person accepting and receiving this information under that assumption. We want you to be the best you, you can be.

All this takes work and time. The organizations that can do this win the culture war, because all the people working for you will know they won’t get this anywhere else!

11 thoughts on “Watered Downed Feedback is Killing America

  1. It really is the biggest disservice to employee development there is. We give all this positive feedback for engagement (yay!). Then when the EE brings up areas of their own concern, we dismiss that. Why? Because we don’t want to have a difficult conversation. We just told them everything was rainbows and unicorns, right?

    Why don’t we want to have a difficult conversation? We don’t know how. We haven’t been on the receiving end, or we have on a poorly managed one.

    Cue the $$$ spent on books on managing team dysfunction and how to talk to people.

    “Constructive criticism” and “performance management” are not four-letter-words. They are important tools for all of us to embrace.

  2. I agree that watered down feedback is pretty much a waste of time. “Political correctness” adds yet another unhelpful restriction. On the other, looking at the example you give, “I need someone who can take a project from scratch and kill it, without me having to babysit the entire thing,” it may well be that the individual receiving the feedback doesn’t have it in him to complete the project himself. Finding help (e.g. someone else to co-lead the project) may be more fruitful than asking him to do something he probably can’t.

  3. Terrific post. The most blunt feedback I’ve ever received professionally was also the most important and influential.

  4. Tim, I fully agree with what you and the two former commentors have written. I believe it is such a disservice to employees to give general, gray-matter feedback. It displays cowardice on the leader’s part and it lacks consideration for the employee. That is, when we do not give specific, actionable items – nothing gets done and the cycle continues adding pressure to the work load and all people and processes associated. I actually thought your second scenario was a good example of what should be said (perhaps with a little tweaking).

    Leaders, when you have earned trust with your employees; you earn the right to speak honestly and receive honest, reliable responses.

  5. These are great points, Tim. I also think that the problem grows exponentially worse the higher a person is in the org chart. Leaders get less specific feedback than their employees. Why? Fear – fear of not being liked, fear of pouting, fear of a lawsuit, fear of cats… (okay, maybe not that one, but you get the idea).

    I like the idea of sharing how feedback is delivered during the interview process. Should definitely be part of a realistic job preview.

    Interested to hear about other’s experiences.

  6. Tim,
    I am totally in sync with you on this. IMO, the butterfly effect goes even further. A manager sugar coats feedback. Employee hears only the good stuff. Employee says, “I’m awesome. I do everything right, my manager just told me so.” Manager is thinking “whew! Glad I got that off my chest, Jim will now correct the issue.” Time passes. Jim never corrects the issue because he never received the critical feedback in a straightforward way. Manager and employee diverge…
    You’re right, training managers to deliver critical feedback is important. Again, IMO, training EMPLOYEES to receive critical feedback and not go to defcon 5 (or is it defcon 1? I dunno, defcon 5 sounds right…) is as important. If a manager gets attacked or the cold shoulder from his employee after he gives critical feedback, how likely is he to give critical feedback in the future?

    There are some companies out there that have adopted and embrace an open feedback culture. If you’re not aware of Bridgewater Associates, check them out. Their CEO, Ray Dalio, so strongly believes that feedback needs to be honest and frequent, he posted his personal philosophy on his company’s website for all to read. By the way, BW is not some fly by night – it’s the worlds largest hedgefund.

    Shameless, but iRevü helps facilitate the feedback process. And the training the customers receive before using iRevü has a significant component on training employees how to better receive feedback. I am touting my product, but it’s because I’m really passionate about what you wrote above. Better feedback=better engagement.

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