Brandt On Leadership-- Flooded with Feedback

Dec. 21, 2004
Before unleashing your opinions, ask these four questions.

Given the current public disgust with lying, cheating CEOs and our recession-driven quest for customer and employee feedback in all forms, it's no wonder that we're seeing a sudden plague of honesty swamping our businesses:

  • From our clients: "To be honest, your service stinks. And we're not much happier with your prices."
  • From our employees: "To be frank, morale is under water. And we're not sure you're up to improving it."
  • From our bosses and boards: "In all candor, we doubt that your strategy is viable. And even if it is, we're not convinced that you can execute it."
  • From our 10-year-olds: "Dad, when you say stuff like that in front of my friends, it makes you look like a dork." To be candid, there are days when I'm not sure I can stand one more honest person. It's not that I want any of these people to lie to me (OK, maybe my 10-year-old. Dork?). But neither do I want the fact that they're now being honest -- as opposed, one wonders, to what they were saying five minutes ago? -- as an all-purpose excuse to club me with unqualified, unusable "feedback." Too often the phrase, "I'm just being honest" becomes a workplace synonym for "I've decided to abandon all pretense of civility while I vent my opinions, no matter how ugly." For some managers, "I'm just being honest" now ranks right up there with the dreaded "Nots" -- as in, "Not to be racist/sexist/ageist/etc., but..." -- as a surefire sign that something offensive is about to emerge from the boss' mouth. What kinds of feedback and honesty work? Four questions make the difference:
  • Is this information important?
  • I need to know if my product is faulty, if my service is lousy, or if my rep has a nasty habit of pinching customers. I don't need to know what my competitor supposedly said about me or why you think my whole profession or industry is a bunch of snakes. If you don't like my company, hire somebody else. If you don't like my industry, do it yourself. Either way, keep your feedback focused on the facts, not your opinions. Likewise, employees need to know what your mission, goals and objectives are. They need to know what's expected of them, and how they're doing against those expectations. They don't need to know how well their predecessors performed or why you think employees today aren't as smart, dedicated and committed as you once were. Remember this: The good old days weren't.
  • Is this information factual?
  • It isn't a fact just because you think it's true. And even if you have data, what you think the data means may not be what it really means. Give yourself the gift of second thought when it comes to offering feedback and decide if you know this to be true, or if someone just told you it was true. Live by the old journalist's rule: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
  • Is this information actionable?
  • Telling me you think my product or plan stinks is useless. Explaining to me why it doesn't work as well as it should or how it fails to address key issues allows me a chance to do something. In the same vein, telling an employee that he failed or cost the company $10,000 is meaningless as feedback. Asking the employee to investigate and report on the root causes of the failure will teach him or her more than any "feedback" ever will -- and might solve a business problem for you, too.
  • Is withholding this information immoral?
  • The three previous questions notwithstanding, we all have a moral responsibility to allow others to succeed or fail based on full knowledge of what they're up against. Give your employees, your suppliers (and your 10-year-old) all the important, factual, actionable feedback you can, and then let them make their own decisions on how to react. You might be surprised at the results. Although you're probably still a dork. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

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