Giving balanced feedback - How not to be a jerk 2005-03-16

Our the years I've been involved in the design and planning phases of a long range of projects, and I've always been very outspoken because I tend to have a lot of opinions about both strategic issues and technical issues surrounding the projects I get involved with.

However, it took a random conversation to realise my biggest mistake in the feedback I gave...

At one of my previous companies I worked together with a very talented guy on the legal side (and while I'm exceedingly bad at forming lasting personal relationships with people I work with, I can honestly say he was one of the few people that went through management at that company I'd still trust in a business situation), and in conjunction with a relative longwinded contract review process we were both involved in, we were at some point sitting in the meeting room with a few other people.

Suddenly he told me:

- When I started I thought you were a real jerk.

Initially I was just dumbfounded, because I didn't thought I'd ever given anyone there a reason to think that (well, once, but that was quickly sorted out), though I might not make great efforts at forming relationships or making friends at work. I thought it was insensitive and rude, and started thinking about some really sarcastic reply.

But he quickly followed up that comment with an explanation. The reason he thought I was a jerk was that he thought that almost every time he suggested something, I came up with a long list of problems with his idea.

But then he realised I came up with a list of problems because there were real problems with the proposals, and I didn't do it just to him.

To me, I had just been mindful of my job. I'd analysed the problem and found a list of issues that needed solutions. And I expected people to get that, and work with me on finding solutions that worked, or drop the idea flat if it couldn't work.

What I should have done, and which I generally do now as a result of thinking through that conversation and how I came across (Thanks!), is not to ignore the problems, but to present solutions.

They may not be workable, fully fleshed out solutions - sometimes they'll just be rough ideas of areas to explore -, but they're a starting point.

It's important to see the difference between glossing over a problem, and saying "we might have to do X and Y to make that proposal work, because of Z". Instead of shooting down the proposal you'd present ideas that make the original idea work, even if it totally changes the character of that idea and the end product is something different than originally envisaged.

The net result is the same for the business, but with one big difference when it comes to the work environment: You're not making someone else potentially look bad for having proposed something "which couldn't possibly work", and you are not looking bad for being the guy that's always bringing up problems.

Lesson two - Compliment on ideas even when they have problems

I'm not a very outwardly emotional person. I won't run up to someone and shake their hands, or loudly and excitedly tell everyone how happy I am about something. Which is fine. However I also don't easily give simple verbal compliments.

This isn't necessarily because I'm not happy about what someone has done, but because I'm generally a very positive person and expect to be happy about what someone has done.

However think for a second about what it looks like to other people: You never tell them they've done a good job. You never praise them for an idea. You never talk them up around other people. All because you're really, really hapy about the work they do, and that is how you'd expect it to be... But they won't know, and neither will their colleagues.

It sounds obvious, but it isn't. I didn't realise for years, because to me that kind of feedback have never been important - I have a large enough (some might say inflated ;) ) ego to believe in myself significantly more than I believe in praise from someone else, so I've never seen it as something that was important to give other people. Though given my managers over the years I'd say most of them probably fit in the same category.

Feedback is vital. Not only to your direct reports, but to anybody you encounter in your daily work, such as the guy I mentioned that I was often in meetings with. He had lots of great ideas, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered commenting on them. If his ideas weren't worthwhile exploring, there would have been no point for me in spending time finding problems with them, because they'd die a quick death and not become and issue.

So because I expected good ideas from him, I'd sit in meeting after meeting and tear his ideas to shreds in an effort to make sure we resolved any problems so they'd work.

Picture being on the other side of that, and knowing that when you open your mouth next, some tech guy that's generally otherwise keeping his mouth shut and that you don't really know that well on a personal level will promptly decide to produce a list of 15 bulleted items with why your idea will fail.

As noted above, my first error was to produce a list of 15 bulleted items with why the idea will fail instead of a list of 15 proposals for how to fix the idea so it works.

But that still seems negative and still comes across as criticism when it really isn't, and so my second major mistake was never saying "that's a great idea!" before producing my list, and not pointing out all the things that were good and should be kept.

Praise an idea when it is offered and before you suggest changes, praise the person one to one, both with the person in question and to his/her manager. Don't go to the rest of your team and tell about how this particular person is great, it'll easily cause grumbling, but do praise a specific item of work.

Trust me, no matter how obvious it is to you that you respect someone, unless you say so face to face to the person in question or to people who will pass the feedback on that person is likely not to realise.

Again, this is something you'd think was obvious, but it's an area were I kept failing, and where I know from personal experience I'm by far the only one.

(Nothing reveals things like this better than exit interviews, when you sometimes see just how big the gap between what the exiting employee and their manager's perception of the value placed on the employee is - I'd like to know how much money companies lose in recruiting costs just over this alone)

Lesson three - When you've been a jerk, apologise

It's inevitable to come across to harsh every now and again. Some ideas NEED to be torn to shreds so they can be buried. But even bad ideas are sometimes worth praising because someone took the time to try.

When an idea is genuinely bad, explain why, suggest other avenues to consider, and point out that you'd like to discuss other ideas. Point to parts that seems promising, and try to figure out why the person proposing an idea thought it was good and would work, and praise the good parts about their thinking. This is constructive feedback that both encourages openness, but also help the proposer understand how to do a better job next time.

Just try not to lecture.

But if you've still come across as a real bastard afterwards, apologise. Pull the person aside afterwards, or even apologise in the meeting, and make it a point to explain that it's all about the issue, and not the person and point the part of their work you really respect, or related ideas they've had that might be more worthwhile.

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