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Attention managers: Do you give feedback, or guidance?

January 4, 2016

By Ed Holinski, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Fast Company posted an article this week titled “Former Googler Lets Us In On The Surprising Secret To Being A Good Boss.” The author, Kim Scott, an accomplished coach, tells us that the single most important thing a boss can do is focus on guidance—giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is more commonly called feedback. But the term “feedback” has come to sound screechy and make us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance, on the other hand, is something most of us long for.

This is interesting because language matters. When you hear something like “Would you like some feedback,” do you think “Now what did I do wrong”? Many of think that, because that term “feedback” now carries negative baggage. So using a term like “guidance” is better. An alternative could be “Could I share some observations?” This terminology is not as likely to immediately make the subject person feel defensive.

Ms. Scott shares a story that illustrated to her that tough messages can be delivered and received well if the subject understands that the guidance is coming from someone who cares. This means managers must earn the right to provide feedback that is actually constructive. The employee must feel that the manager cares and is providing guidance in an effort to help him or her improve. If not, even with more positive language, the guidance will not be received well. How many times have you heard praise or criticism that was driven more by self-interest than the interest of others? If you are like most people, the answer is way more often than not.

Ms. Scott contends that it is possible to provide what she calls radical candor when the groundwork has been laid properly. She gives an example of her boss providing “aggressive” criticism in order to make sure the message is received and acknowledged. But it is necessary to demonstrate consistently that the manager is concerned about the employee first. This will establish trust in the manager’s motivation, which will open the person to getting better instead of becoming defensive. Then the directness can be stinging but it will be understood and accepted.

It is not easy to care, and show that you care, in today’s business environment. Many workplaces have become sterilized to the point where managers see employees as mere skillsets instead of living, breathing human beings with feelings. In a recent meeting I attended with a group of executives, one of them told me only half-kiddingly that I was making him uncomfortable talking about feelings.

Ms. Scott contends that “…criticizing your employees when they screw up is not just your job, it’s actually your moral obligation. You have to tell people when you think they’re wrong or their work isn’t good enough.” Do you believe you have a moral responsibility to share your observations, which can be praise when you want to reinforce things you like and criticism when you would like to redirect?

Many of us find it more in our comfort zones to tend to tasks and “doing work” instead of providing guidance. However, as managers, providing guidance is our work. Individual contributors can do the work. The biggest part of a manager’s role is to help others get better by getting them to do the work better. This requires ongoing guidance.

Finally, Ms. Scott suggests that managers must make it easier to speak truth. With this in mind, it is helpful to ask for guidance yourself so others know it is good to solicit and accept guidance. Become a role model by asking “What are the one or two things I can do differently?” Then listen and work at making the recommended changes. This will contribute to a more candid and guidance-rich environment.

Let ASE’s Talent Development team (248-223-8017) know if you or your teams would like help in getting better in these key areas. ASE’s manager development programs focus on becoming better by building trust, providing guidance and creating more productive environments. But remember, you must care first. Otherwise your skill-building efforts may have little impact.

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