Straightening Out the Mess of Managing


I had two great conversations this week, which I will relate today as the foundation for a month-long series to help you think about how you might manage better.  Breakfast #1:  Bill* and I were talking about a CEO we both worked for.  “He was so hard to figure,” I said.  Bill said, “I had the same experience.  Some days he was great, but then other times, he’d give me the feeling I was really messing up.  But I was always guessing what it was.”  We agreed that whether  he told us that something was great, or that something wasn’t done right, we never felt we were getting the straight poop or the whole story.

“I couldn’t believe this,” my friend said and got this look of amazement. He continued, “Before he left the organization he gave me a long letter – I mean a long letter – telling me what a contribution I had made.”  Bill said the letter was carefully written, full of both detail and enthusiasm.  Looking as amazed as if he’s just read the letter, Bill said to me: “In five years, I never knew that he felt that way about my work.”  I nodded and told Bill, “To this day, I’m still not entirely sure how he saw my work.”

One of the foundations for the lessons I will draw out in the coming weeks is this: What bosses think about our work really matters. This guy and I are both fairly accomplished executives, well into mid-career, and looking back over a decade. As people committed to doing a great job, we (or at least I, who never got such the “all’s well” letter) still wonder how we were doing, and where we really stood.

Breakfast #2. My friend Carol* says, “Here’s the tough thing. As a boss you have to be concerned about quality. That’s your job as a CEO or an Owner or a Principal.” So, she said that when she reviews work, she can be critical and tough. She knows there’s some fallout. She sure doesn’t want to deflate or discourage or diminish the pride and energy of one of her team members, but there’s often time pressure, a client or customer to be pleased, and a need to be clear and decisive about a point.  So she lays it out.  She said, “I tell them ‘Good job’ at the time.” And she said she often goes out of her way later to thank them, but she said her gut tells her they don’t really hear or believe the praise, while the criticism rings in their ears for a long time.

So, here’s the challenge to which I will come back in each of the next four weeks: How do you offer the necessary, clear, critical-yet-constructive feedback – which people say they want and you know they need – yet still build them up? Maybe you’ll quickly say, “It’s not an either/or,” and of course, you’re right. But the human psyche’s not so simple, not so linear. Instead, let’s share some serious thought about what it takes to make it really work.

Let me kick it off with a question. You can apply it to my two breakfast stories or any  situation in which you manage a worker or child. What is the value of distinguishing between what you say .  . . and what they hear? (How) could that help?

Maybe observe this distinction this week, as you lead with your best self!


*Not their names.

  • Dan,

    The art of being genuine is so important to having people follow you, and inspiring them to want to come to work and contribute. Treating every relationship with great care and importance. Surrounding yourself with solid people that have the same positive value system. A great leader cannot hope to be perfect, but only the last one standing.

    Oprah is a great leader and example of creating a business out of caring, positive action and giving.


  • Dan-
    I believe that you should be as honest, direct and detailed as possible when providing any type of feedback. “Good job” does not really mean anything to an employee; instead saying “I thought you did a very good presentation this morning especially when you gave the examples of best practice in workforce planning”. My practice is not to let a week go by without finding a particular example to recognize. The same principles apply for giving constructive feedback – cite the work and be as detailed and precise as possible.

  • We offer comment on what we see. It is received in the context of how the person is feeling at the time. Best to find out how they feel about their work before we appraise it for quality.

    • Nice point, Gordon. A great addition to Jeff Vaught’s comment, i.e., even people who tend to take criticism very well (I think of my wife) may have had a day or a moment or a meeting, which makes this just about THE WORST time to be giving them criticism. Thanks,

  • A couple of thoughts. Just saying “good job” and “thank you” is not nearly as efffective as saying “I really like how you dug deeper on your analysis and pulled out some points that wouldn’t have otherwise been considered. You demonstrated how this deal really appears workable when it looked like it wasn’t at first” (a real life example I had recently). Similarly, criticisms should be very specific with what you would have done differently. Most of the time the mistakes are not critical or repetitive and your word choice, tone, and body language should reflect that errors are ok. Finally, most outputs I see have both flashes of brilliance and some errors in the same work. I try to sandwich my criticisms between praises (with Paul’s epistles as an example of how to do that).

  • Dan,

    I found when I was teaching graduate students for nearly 20 years, they responded to criticism about their work the same as you have described in this message. If part of the critique was correcting some errors or suggesting improvements, and part was praise for excellent insights and critical thinking, they would immediately focus narrowly on the criticism that regarded needing improvements or further development and dismiss or ignore the applause for where they had done extremely well. The same was true in oral examinations, prospectus hearings, and doctoral defenses. I have not studied what psychologists have to say about this, but it appears that most people are not readily able to accept imperfections in their work. I think some interesting conversations might be around whether this is a contemporary response fostered by grade inflation and an over-emphasis on rewarding children’s behaviors while diminishing attention to their mistakes, or simply a dimension of the human psyche. I do believe that my students who were able to accept and work with constructive criticism, generally produced work that was superior to those who were somewhat paralyzed by the “improvements-needed” criticism and enabled it to fester unproductively. However, I must say the percentage who couldn’t use the criticism productively was very small.

    • Margaret,
      I hear you – both about how hard it is for people to digest the critical, and also how those who can develop the capacity to digest what’s worthwhile, and do you-know-what with the rest tend to grow immeasurably!

  • My father always used to tell me that you need to maintain a ratio of 10 “atta-boys” for each “aw-crap”. That formula has always worked well for me. Though, as noted above, the “atta-boys” need to have enough depth to be compelling. If you can’t hit the ratio with a particular employee, consider whether they’re a good fit for the role (or company).


    • Scott,
      There is a mounting pile of research on the 5:1 ratio, e.g., by Dr. John Gottman on successful marriages. Your dad was a smart guy, and he set a smartly high bar for managers!

  • As leaders it is vitally important to provide both redirective and positive feedback – in writing. Providing redirective feedback in writing gives team members the opportunity to reflect on what you really mean, not just what they recall you saying. Providing positive feedback in writing provides a touchpoint to employees to look back on when things aren’t working as well. A reminder if you will, of what you really think of them and their work. The true key is to realize feedback is an on-going conversation, not a one-time one-way information dump.

  • We are talking about psychiatry and more specifically, human behavior. I wonder what a panel of specialists in human behavior would say?

    It is common for people to take criticism of their work as an attack on them, and so they instantly go into defense, instead of thinking, how can we do a better job? At Michigan State University one of my art instructors often discussed the importance of accepting criticism of your work. You should never apologize for your work, but you should admit that it can always be improved, and you appreciate the comments. Art is about expression, and so when people speak about your art, first of all, you are getting noticed rather than ignored; second, you are learing what it is that people see in your work; and third you get the opportunity to try to reform or advance your work to communicate and express your art better. I think this applies to any kind of work.

    So educators need to take a part in teaching these things to reduce the problems discussed in the article above.

  • Many managers struggle with providing performance feedback to correct workplace issues, like tardiness and absenteeism.

    How this is done is through the feedback process: honestly, respectfully, openly, thoughtfully and with a sense of purpose. As a team leader or manager you can begin to work on the tardiness and absenteeism situation by writing out your answers to the following two questions:

    How can you say that you are concerned about this weakness in a respectful and helpful way? (Be specific. “You aren’t contributing to the team’s effort” is a difficult statement for someone to hear. Reformat the weakness. “I am concerned when you don’t get to the office on time” refocuses the concern as a problem.)

    How can you offer this person encouragement to change the way he or she has done things in the past?

    Employees want to succeed in their work. Most accept that goal-directed feedback is an effective means of guiding their work activities to be in concert with team and organizational goals. By having a performance feedback conversation with the tardy employee (where you coach while doing more listening than talking), you can insist that he arrive on time, focus on his work and ask what he will do to make this happen.

    The impact on the tardy employee will make him responsible for his actions and sets clear expectations. The consequence is he has the opportunity to design a solution to the issue.

  • I think that many of the responses are missing the point. What we think we are doing, even if it is providing positive feedback is not always necessarily what the employee is hearing. Regardless of the industry or situation, people always want a silver bullet. If I do this I’m doing it right and I will succeed. Unfortunately, no such thing exists. The value potential here is in getting to know your people. Each and everyone of us has different needs and expectations. I’ve had similiar conversations with two seperate employees, one complemented me on how motivating and helpful they had found my approach, the other burst into tears. Know the people you count on to get the job done for you and tailor your approach accordingly.

    • Jeff,
      Your example rips open the dullness we can have as managers, when we think that we can just describe the problem or offer the constructive criticism, with no thought given to the way the particular person before us tends to hear things.

  • My coworker just reminded me the other day to be firm, fair, and consistent when giving feedback. As managers we are wired to find deviations, but we have to remember that there are a lot of correct decisions those we lead make too. Recently, a college student, an emerging leader on my team, made a good presentation in front of a number of community leaders, but showed up late and a little frazzled. After the presentation I said her speech was organized, influential, genuine, and ethusiastic. I recommended that she show up a little earlier to prepare for her presentation,speak a little louder, and consider wearing less casual shoes (she wore flip flops). I once heard that people internalize negative feedback more than positive feedback. Like bank accounts we need to consider the credit/debit balance of the accounts of those we lead. As managers we have to consider framing our feedback as fair and balanced while being consistent between situations and individuals.

  • Dan, I believe that there are actualy three elements of the message that need to be distinguished – the one that I intend to convey, the one that I in fact convey, and finally the one that my audience hears. The more intentionally I work to align what I am thinking and feeling with what I express verbally and non-verbally, the more easily my audience can hear the intended message.

    There is also value in sharing intent and invitation. It can be dishonoring to assume that the person with whom I wish to share my feedback automatically ought to hear and value it. When I ask for permission (ie., “may I share a compliment with you?” or “I have some feedback that might be of value to you, is now a good time to share it with you?”), not only is the recipient better able to hear it, there is often greater congruence between what I intend to say and what they infact hear.

  • Dan:

    Well described common problem for all leaders on how to articulate intent while expecting more, yet keeping those you’re tasked with leading inspired. I struggled with this as a leader as well until I approached the problem from the employee’s perspective and created a leadership process anyone can follow that creates a shared vision, personal ownership and accountability. Initially its a lot of work, but leaders and their teams need to change the dynamic of power on its ear by turning communication between manager and follower’s 180 degrees. A process that empowers your team as owners of their’s and the organizations success via their choices and execution levels. A wiser person once used the words Commitment, Compromise and Communication, Communication, Communication to describe the formula for a successful relationship/marriage. I think employees need to feel there is a commitment to them and their career. Leaders and their charges are best lead by compromises in styles and in how to provide support. It’s also very important that leaders and their team consistently follow a process (schedule and structure regular two-three conversations weekly) where you’re communicating respect, support/coaching, caring, commitment, accountability, ownership, etc., to support a cultural expectation of higher levels of execution by everyone. Time is hard to find to do these things, but if you schedule it weekly on your calendar, do it efficiently, its well worth the investment in your most important asset (your people) and the thing that should matter most to you as a leader, their motivation.

  • Dan,

    Here’s a quick take on today’s blog post…

    I became a “boss” way before I was prepared to be one. So, I fell back on the coaching methods that I learned from some of the great ones… People with national championships, world series rings, NHL awards, and NFL leaders. With a little refinement over the years, the rule of three has served me well. Within this rule, you breakdown criticism of performance into three categories (and three types of employees).

    1. The Tail Between the Legs- If you criticize performance and the body language, eye contact, and overall vibe of the person looks to be crestfallen, then you need to change the tone and leave them with something positive and constructive… if you plan on keeping them around of course. If positive reinforcement continues to fall short, we would give them one last “shockabuku” before cutting them loose. Sometimes (not often though) you’ll find that they were a wolf in sheep’s clothing and they respond.
    2. The Wide Eyed Receiver- If you criticize performance and the eyes are wide with comprehension and attention, the head is nodding, the body language is affirmative and thirsty for the improvement, then you’ve usually got someone who will respond and motivate themselves with criticism. In most cases, they will learn quickly from the criticism. These are almost always your best team leaders… However, talent is talent, and the best leaders are often not the best players.
    3. The Rebel WITH or WITHOUT a Cause- The third and final archetype is the Rebel. This person will give a “military” response that sounds like it’s affirmative, but the body language or ending tone do not match the words. They are stubborn and they sometimes think that they know their world better than you do (maybe they’re right). The biggest problem is that they are usually the very best performers. That’s what gives them the confidence to fight you on the issues. Depending on the organization, you need to fight the good fight and reign them in fast. By bending them to your will, yet allowing them to lead in their own style, you can create the most powerful ally. If you let them carry on without consequences, they can undermine your leadership and the whole organizational structure can become a crap shoot. Don’t gamble on a Rebel… Either break them into an acceptable model, or send them on their way.

    Just my take on the delivery of criticism.

    Joseph W. Gough
    President / Founder
    Inspire Michigan
    248 506-0268 direct
    248 842-8400 office

  • Long ago, my kids’ least favorite words were “what did you hear me say?’ I had learned that what I said was not very often what anyone else heard. I taught myself to do frequent verbal checks when the situation or the person mattered. Then we would talk it out until they heard what I said or I heard what they said. Twenty years later, the kids are using the same techiniques in their own personal and professional lives.
    That may be a way to communicate the facts AND the feelings.

  • I believe that a person develops, at a certain point in their life, the strength to take flat criticism as a constructive thing. Until then, it has this emotional aspect to it that’s like doing the polar bear dive nude.

    If it’s criticism at work, I believe it’s impossible to take it correctly if you have this feeling about your work that triggers a survival response. People who don’t feel economically-, financially-, emotionally-, intellectually-, or otherwise -secure are likely to have that sort of impulsive response to criticism at work. I believe you have to find a personal, private comfort level in order to focus on work to the point where you can foresee yourself making many different decisions and responding many different ways to new developments such as harsh criticisms. Once you have that “fitting in your skin” then you can find yourself on equal footing with your boss, your coworkers, whomever. At that point, criticism can be taken for what it is, because you’ve worked out the personal vulnerabilities on your own.

    When you’re giving criticism to somebody who’s not as strong, or who is raw-nerved, you always have to couch it or sweeten it somehow. Offering encouragement along with criticism is a good idea, so that it’s taken more as a speedbump and not a roadblock. But you have to have confidence in a person to encourage them. How can you place confidence in someone who won’t buck up under fire? Just for risk’s sake, alone?

    From a perspective where criticism is this grey area that everybody can meet at and which is needed to keep everything on an even keel, the whole prospect that there are workplaces towards one extreme and the other is just so not worth thinking about. I think everybody should work on a stronger feeling of independence.

  • I thought about this awhile and decided to come back to it for the sake of answering the posed question, ” What is the value of distinguishing between what you say . . . and what they hear? (How) could that help? ”

    If you can empathise with what the other person is feeling, and if you’re simultaneously in touch with what you’re feeling, then you can construct the lead-synthesis expression that gets the other person over to where you are, or over to somewhere else you want them to be, etc. sort of like triangulation.

    So if you’re dealing with a concept of say “telephone/whisper” where an entropy forced by quietude pushes information towards purity, you can quickly get a sense of where things went wrong by getting someone who’s also a sensitive feeler to roll out their impressions, giving you something to gauge what should have been against what did occur.

    For simple office misunderstandings, I believe all of that’s superfluous, where it’s important just to be direct and to listen, and not to shut out your feelings when they say “this person needs a positive reinforcement but doesn’t know how to ask for it” or “this person wants more from me but doesn’t think they’re worth it” or even “this person expects actually much less from me as a leader and more as a team-mate, and doesn’t think it’s pertinent to ask for that”.

    But back to what I was saying, on behalf of the leader or the person in a quandary, people need to be sure and resolute about what they want and how they feel. If you have wishy-washyness in the team and leadership, this is where you find a lot of messiness. Granted, everybody deserves slack and nobody’s perfect, all very important to keep in mind when just keeping an even keel, maintaining your own pace which you’ve presented from the very beginning and should be known for, and expecting that people around you are doing the same.

    Also, in a manner of speaking, properly knowing the difference between what is said and what is heard is exactly how a person can get down to being sensitive to what’s neutral and what isn’t. Certain things should be common grounds, and criticism is one of those things. If criticism is this big to-do, there’s some value somewhere attached to that criticism (or criticism itself) that’s much too positive or negative.

    Hopefully that’s a more positive way for me to comment and somebody gets something out of it.

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