Brandt On Leadership -- New Rules for When to Provide Feedback

Rule No. 1: Just don't do it.

I had a drink with McGillicuddy last night, and he told me to tell you -- not in so many words, but you know McGillicuddy -- that you need to cool it with the F-word. He says you've got your whole department doing it.

You know the word I'm talking about: feedback. You say you want to know what he said, specifically? Well, something like this: "If there's one phrase I hate, it's this: I'd like to give you some feedback.'"

Why? First, because no matter how many 360-degree reviews the HR department sends over, McGillicuddy doesn't really give a rat's... well, he's not overly concerned with how you or anybody else thinks he's doing. Second, back in the day when McGillicuddy came up, what passed for feedback was a top-of-the-lungs reaming from just about anybody above you, for just about anything: missing a deadline, not shining your shoes, forgetting your boss's brand of smokes. The last thing in the world McGillicuddy ever wanted was feedback, because back then the F-word was one step away from getting fired.

Which brings me to McGillicuddy's second point: He's even more troubled -- his word, not mine -- about your generation's obsession with getting feedback. He's thought about it quite a bit actually, and believes that it probably all stems from too much "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers" when you and your peers were little, and not enough spanking. He says that you were all told you were so special, so often and by so many people, that you made the mistake of actually believing it. Now when you ask for feedback, he believes, what you really want is, "You're wonderful" or "Thanks" or "Am I ready for your job now?" According to McGillicuddy, this entire company -- hell, this entire society -- is about three steps away from handing out Kool-Aid and nap blankies every afternoon, and that we'll probably get there if HR has anything to do with it.

What does he want you to do?

Well, he never tells you to do anything. He did say that a manager could go a long way by following his three rules of feedback:

  1. Don't do it. Nobody's ever been hurt by what they didn't say or scribble on a form or type into an e-mail. The three monkeys got it two-thirds wrong in the corporate suite: Seeing or hearing evil isn't necessarily bad. But speaking it... Brrr. You may as well leave little "Please fire me now" Post-It notes in your filing cabinet.
  2. If forced to use the F-word by a whiny subordinate who threatens to go to HR, give it to him old-style: "Were you the genius who shipped 50 containers full of machinery to India instead of Indiana?" With any luck at all, 10 minutes of this will be enough to make Mr. Needy slink back to his cubicle, cry himself a river and then keep his head down till he finds another job.
  3. If Mr. Needy does complain to HR, respond in kind: Shower the bastard with praise. Effuse. Enthuse. Although your whiny protg will initially glow in the reflected warmth of your words, he'll eventually start to wonder... do you really mean it? This in itself would be sweet, but it gets better: Eventually another young feedbacker -- too unseasoned to read between the lines -- will read your purple prose and hire away Mr. Needy, thrilled to find a talented person who's had such incredible mentoring. Not only will you dump Mr. Needy, but you'll also create such high expectations that there's no possible way he can succeed. In less than 12 months, both he and his new boss will be demoted or fired after their project crashes and burns for lack of experience, getting all the feedback they so richly deserve.

What's that? What if the trail of failure leads back to you? What if you're asked to explain how you could've rated someone so highly who then flamed out so spectacularly?

Simple, says McGillicuddy. Just look 'em in the eye and say: "It really wasn't my choice to do that kind of review, but HR told me I had to. Now let me give you some feedback about that...."

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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