Recently, I watched the movie Goodbye Columbus for the first time since I saw it in the theater in 1969. The romance film is best known for Ali MacGraw’s debut as an actress in a leading role and for its sad ending, in contrast to the happy ending of The Graduate, a much better known film released at about the same time. Yet, in seeing this movie again after so many years of HR, coaching and consulting work, what struck me was the directness and authenticity of Richard Benjamin’s communication to Ali MacGraw. Throughout, he is calm, clear and transparent. This aspect of the film is so well done that clips of it should be shown to managers in training sessions.
Seeing Richard Benjamin’s performance made me think about how feedback should be delivered. We all know the two basic rules:
Make four-fifths or your feedback positive, and
Make any negative feedback constructive.
There is a lot to be said about both of these rules which goes beyond their apparent meaning. With respect to positive feedback, it needs to be genuine and well deserved – this means don’t just be a cheerleader. Falsely positive feedback may feel good to you, but your employees will see it as patronizing and lacking substance. When employees do something well, you need to explain what it was about their work that added real value and made a difference. At the same time, it is not a good idea to tarnish your positive feedback with a touch of “here’s how to do it even better.” Just be clear about what went well and why, and say “thank you.”
When you give negative feedback, you need to be clear and direct http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/dont-sugarcoat-negative-feedba/. A good example is: “I appreciate your hard work, but you are not collaborating with your colleagues in Asia. As a result, we waste time getting their comments after the fact and reworking our proposals. The is of particular concern with Asians who lose face when they are made to feel less important by reviewing work after the fact rather than co-creating it. This undermines our commitments to be a global company and respect diversity.”
Contrast this with the following half-hearted message: “I really like the way you framed this proposal, and the input from Asia really helped finish it off. I wonder if we can streamline this process by having you and the Asians work on the first pass together.” Enough said on this point.
Similarly, it’s not productive to pretend that needed change will be easy. Consider this message: “You are a strong contributor, and we all appreciate your consistently strong results. However, your team finds you really difficult to work with. I’m concerned that your command-and-control style is damaging morale. Let’s get you an executive coach and work on this aspect of your management style. It’s an investment we are willing to make in you, but It will also take a real commitment on your part to change.”
Now, contrast this with a similar message that concludes: “I’m sure that six months of coaching will address this problem.” Big difference. the first message makes it clear that hard work is ahead and will need to be taken seriously. The second message says “just go through the motions of six months of coaching and you’ll be fine.”
In the end, it’s about gaining an employee’s confidence in the authenticity and transparency of your message. Employees who feel this connection will work very hard to do the right things, driving better results. This is what employee engagement is really about