I almost entirely removed the words "no" and "don't" from my vocabulary.
March 23, 2015 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Criticism and Ineffective Feedback, blog post by Kate Heddleston
"Critical feedback is an aspect of engineering cultures (and work-​cultures, in general) that is damaging to both employee performance and diversity efforts. Critical feedback is bad for a myriad of reasons. First, people have strong, negative reactions to criticism regardless of their gender, race, or age. Additionally, people's performance worsens when they are given critical feedback. They also end up resenting the person criticising them, even if the criticism is technically correct or kindly meant. Finally, criticism is disproportionately given to women and minorities during performance reviews, resulting in an uneven distribution of critical feedback in the workplace that harms diversity. This blog post talks about why criticism is ineffective, how criticism affects diversity, and several different ways you can give constructive feedback in the workplace without criticizing coworkers or employees."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (63 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
I use the "sandwich technique", where I open the discussion by telling the employee how much I value their contributions, then I tell them everything that is sub-par about his/her performance with suggestions and then close the discussion with a summation of what I just said with room for questions and a hearty, "keep up the good work."
posted by Renoroc at 10:33 AM on March 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

Another way to give feedback is to phrase things in terms of questions. This is a good form of feedback if you aren't sure what the correct course of action is and you want to spark a discussion. Be careful not to hide unspoken expectations behind questions, however. Questions leave space for people to misunderstand expectations or feel condescended to.

Yes, I think it's really tricky to ask good questions when giving feedback. Not only do I find it tough to do, when it's done to me I almost always go into "how can I deduce the answer that I am supposed to give" mode.

This is very useful and I think I'll share it with a discussion group I run.
posted by Frowner at 10:34 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm thinking a lot lately about how to be a good feedback-provider, as I'm getting ready to hire and train someone to assist with my work, in a position that didn't exist before so there aren't good expectations set. This gives me some good food for thought. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Stacey at 10:37 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I bristled at the title of the article and then realized that the author meant a quite different sort of thing by the term "critical feedback" than I usually use--ha! (I include positive feedback in my definition of criticism or constructive criticism, so I appreciated her operational definition.)

I like the same "sandwich technique" Renoroc mentions, or alternatively the technique of trying to mention about twice as many positive things about something I'm evaluating as I do things that need improving. It's really useful for me as an evaluator because I find I am intensely critical and will focus on negative aspects of the project to the exclusion of all else, but also because I find that it really softens the and gets people to focus on what I'm actually saying. It's very easy to take criticism as an attack on the whole work or even on you as a person rather than taking it as a thing to change and move on, and it helps to communicate "I like your work, I like you, I believe in you, be better next time!" so that people have room to get over that initial defensive cringe.

Mind you, if the person I am criticizing doesn't respond to my comments or nods along with the positive stuff but blows off the critical stuff, I'm considerably more blunt next time, and so forth until I find that the person is listening to me. In general I have found white dudes to be most likely to need a more "Hey. This thing you are doing. It is wrong. Fix it" kind of approach, and most likely to blow off criticism as somehow "not applicable" to their work or what they're doing. I'm pretty sure this is directly related to the ratio of criticism to praise that people receive more generally, but I have to wonder if it isn't compounding the problem when you have disproportionately white male supervisors and most of your non-white male employees at more junior positions (as in the case in my field).
posted by sciatrix at 10:43 AM on March 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

This is a great and very useful piece. I also wanted to pull out the discussion of questions, as I feel it can be perceived as a trapping mechanism. I like that this is really performance-oriented and focused on building trust and skill. I've also really appreciated direct feedback and guidance - "do this," rather than "do you think you should be doing this?" There is a lot of wishy-washy stuff in management life, when really, what it's all about, is describing what a successful job looks like and helping people figure out a way to do it.
posted by Miko at 10:43 AM on March 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

There's also a gender difference in the reception of criticism, depending on whether the supervisor in question is male of female: "Similarly, women forfeit more credibility than men if they do not deliver discipline in a considerate or sensitive way"

I've found being a supervisor to be among the toughest aspects of my job. I feel like I never get it right, and I feel penalized for any criticism I do deliver. And that's probably because getting it right is a very, very narrow window. The tone argument, again, again, and again.
posted by Dashy at 10:48 AM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Really enjoyed this and have noted for future reference. Thank you for posting.
posted by widdershins at 10:48 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

As far as sandwiching -- I remember (to do it) best as a "shit sandwich". It really is effective.
posted by Dashy at 10:50 AM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

It might help you to apply some of those positive tenets of constructive criticism to your own management style, Dashy. As in, introspection. I think if you're worried about it, there's a good chance you're good at it. Quite possibly better than you think you are.

On preview: it's a big shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite.
posted by ostranenie at 10:53 AM on March 23, 2015

Anecdotal evidence and analogies are not really proof of your thesis/position. Also is learning to ride a motorcycle the same as learning to say audit the accounts of a company?

However, anytime someone perceives a statement as being critical, regardless of the intention of the criticizer, it has negative effects.

Where is the evidence for this broad causal claim? What exactly are "negative effects"?

This is the same old folksy "wisdom" about "constructive criticism" that we have been shovel feed since children. Maybe we all need to instead just toughen up a bit and not take all criticism as a personal attack.
And how would we learn to do that?.... hmm perhaps by being more exposed to criticism?

Is the footnote link to : How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie supposed to be proof?
posted by mary8nne at 10:53 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've had a couple of bosses who could've really stood to have read this
posted by unknownmosquito at 10:54 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I felt this piece was highly subjective and personal, and its aim was to be a piece of great rhetorical writing - "here's what I've found, you may find this useful, too". I also found its subjectivity to be its strength.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:56 AM on March 23, 2015

For a second I thought this was parenting advice and laughed and laughed and laughed.
posted by lydhre at 10:59 AM on March 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

Maybe we all need to instead just toughen up a bit and not take all criticism as a personal attack.

Managing isn't about telling your reports to toughen up and accept criticism. It's about using the tools available to you to make them better at their job. One of those tools is understanding what motivates them, what they will be receptive to, and what they will get defensive about.
posted by Phredward at 10:59 AM on March 23, 2015 [14 favorites]

This is good stuff. It lines up both with the day-to-day reality of being on a team and with my experience of how much damage criticism-oriented performance reviews can do. (I feel like I've seen those nearly derail entire careers, and I've definitely lost coworkers I would rather have had stick around as fallout from them.)
posted by brennen at 11:00 AM on March 23, 2015

I will note that it does cite studies.

I have done a lot of reading on "softer" sciences -- social and emotional stuff -- and it's tricky to do good studies on such things, but that doesn't mean people are just making crap up willy-nilly based on some one-off personal experience that they wanted to spout off about.
posted by Michele in California at 11:00 AM on March 23, 2015 [10 favorites]

Am I the only one who hates being on the receiving end of the "sandwich"? Give me constructive feedback, but the sugarcoating feels artificial and I know what is going to follow it. And I know those conversations can be anxiety inducing on both ends.

The frustrating thing for me was either not knowing what the end goal was or the goal shifting at the whims of the boss.

In an ideal world, there is understood system so that when one receives feedback, one has a picture of the larger goal and the supervisor is providing a more clear map of how to get there. Or as I like to say, in many ways I learned a lot more from my crappy bosses than my good ones.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:03 AM on March 23, 2015 [22 favorites]

You know what really makes me feel like crap? You know what really, really demotivates me? When somebody treats me like a child and tries to manipulate me while wasting my time with transparent BS "softening techniques", instead of just coming out and telling me what they actually have to say.

Actually it's not really treating me like a child, because you shouldn't treat your child as subhuman either. It's just obnoxious rudeness. And I've gotten tons of it from people who probably turned around and patted themselves on the back for how sensitive they were being.

If you're using those tactics on somebody, especially from a position of power, you should consider the possibility that you're not fooling them. They may just be going along while pushing up their contempt meter for you a little more.
posted by Hizonner at 11:05 AM on March 23, 2015 [12 favorites]

No mandymanwasregistered, you are not alone. My old boss liked this approach and it always just exacerbated my imposter syndrome because it always felt insincere and I couldn't figure out which parts were and which parts were not D:
posted by unknownmosquito at 11:06 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, those techniques do rely on being able to actually find things you sincerely like about the person's performance. I can certainly see how insincere praise would be pretty enraging and demotivating to hear.
posted by sciatrix at 11:10 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everyone should sit-in on a few upper-level studio critiques in art school if you want to see bluntly-critical-yet-highly-constructive* feedback at work.

*Most of the time.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:12 AM on March 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

It's not just insincere praise, although that is an enormous problem. It's the fact that the person giving that praise is obviously using it to sugarcoat something. They may mean it, but would they have bothered to mention it if they hadn't felt they needed it for their "sandwich" or whatever?

And leading questions and that sort of thing are just as disrespectful.
posted by Hizonner at 11:13 AM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Phredward: "Managing isn't about telling your reports to toughen up and accept criticism."

Has anyone done any research on not calling your people "reports"? Because that term (as well as other dehumanizing ones) gnaws at my very core.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:15 AM on March 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

I do know that when I'm teaching, I get a lot better results with positive feedback than with negative feedback.

And I also notice that group discussions go better when we steer away from the "this is bad because" line - what invariably happens when we're looking at a text and someone leads with "this is bad because [of political or aesthetic or whatever-by-fiat] reasons", we almost inevitably (and this is a group of fairly intelligent, sophisticated adults) get a situation where some people who didn't think Thing was bad feel defensive, factions form in the class, the entire discussion revolves around hashing out the most minute points about whether it was "bad" or not and we lose focus on how the work actually does its thing. I'm practically at the point where I don't want us to do any good/bad evaluative stuff at all on our readings - not because I think that there's nothing to discuss, but because I think that it's far more useful to us as a group of readers to try to understand how the text works than to get into the weeds over good v. bad.

The issue with critical feedback is not the implicit "are you man/adult/ballsy enough to be told what your boss really thinks" but "taken on aggregate, what is the method that gets the best results from the most people".

There's very seldom a law which says that a boss can't give "this was bad, stop doing it" feedback to a particular employee if the boss feels that this is the style which works best for that employee.

In my own personal life, I started to be a much happier person when I stopped believing that I was being "grown up" and "realistic" by putting myself in situations where I got a lot of very harsh criticism. I used to feel that it was soft and weak and babyish to want people to say nice things (even if true) about you, and for me personally, that ended up being mostly about self-dislike and wanting validation for my own feelings of inadequacy.
posted by Frowner at 11:16 AM on March 23, 2015 [13 favorites]

Very helpful article!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:18 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You know what really makes me feel like crap? You know what really, really demotivates me? When somebody treats me like a child and tries to manipulate me while wasting my time with transparent BS "softening techniques", instead of just coming out and telling me what they actually have to say.

Yes that. When I can see the algorithm driving the statements made by any interlocutor, I end up treating them like a chatbot and taking their advice, no matter how purportedly well-intentioned, about as seriously as I'd take ELIZA's. If anyone, regardless of their position in power hierarchies, want to be taken seriously, they absolutely must behave as people instead of as implementations of a simple machine.

The real shit of contemporary life, of course, is that it's all rigged up just right so that everything will continue to semi-function even when (or especially when) people behave in algorithmically driven ways. It's just after half a lifetime spent eating disingenuous shit sandwiches from people positioned as superiors, and constructing disingenuous shit sandwiches for people positioned as inferiors, I am deadly, deadly sick of how things semi-function.

I find myself firmly believing that if one does not work to establish I-thou relationships rather than I-it ones, even or especially when I-it relationships produce effective outputs within capitalist hierarchical organizations, one is absolutely positively wasting literally everyone's limited time on earth.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:21 AM on March 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

Well, the article itself does not recommend the crap sandwich. It gives a really good and clear example of what works: She went from telling kids "don't drop your elbow" to "keep your elbow up" and saw a 180 degree turnaround in both attitude and performance.

The human mind doesn't do well with "not" statements.

I like the general rubric that suggests that a good example is the best way to teach. Giving people a model to follow, telling them how to follow it, etc. -- that is the most powerful way to get positive results.

That has nothing to do with "find something NICE to say about THEM" or sugarcoating something negative. This is largely how I raised my sons and it is tremendously effective. Telling my kids, for example, what they COULD do to keep themselves quietly entertained in a restaurant led to happy kids and compliments from managers and waitstaff on two continents about how well-behaved and wonderful my kids were. I never expected them to just shut up and sit still when at a restaurant. I was clear we were there mostly for the adults. So encouraged them to bring a book or something quiet to play with. They never acted out and it didn't require me to fight with them about anything.

I am not a big believer in the punishment model of parenting. I was the family disciplinarian and my sons had a lot of respect for me and thought it was laughable when other adults saw me as a doormat. I taught them what TO DO instead of crabbing them about what not to do. If you tell a child "no" or "don't do that" you have, at best, eliminated only one way of a billion for them to be a screw up and annoyance. It is just far, far, far more effective and efficient to tell them how to get results than to say "no" 5000 times a day until you both hate each other.
posted by Michele in California at 11:21 AM on March 23, 2015 [37 favorites]

The sandwich technique is nice, but someone like me hears:

blah blah blah blah

Your work is bad and you should feel bad.

blah blah blah blah

I would prefer straightforward criticism as long as it comes with practical suggestions for how the work can be improved.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:23 AM on March 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

I run a choir, while also holding down a day job, so I am both on the giving and receiving end of criticism in my life. There's a difference between negative and positive criticism, between telling someone they did a bad job, and showing them a better way to do the job. One is an attack on the person themselves, while the second focuses on the work. I do this with the choir all the time. Rather than point out someone who messed up a passage, I'll just say, "OK, I heard this, can we do it this way next time".

As for receiving criticism, I can see where people are coming from in reacting badly to the shit sandwich. I know I chafe when someone tries to sugarcoat criticism. I know when I have fucked up, and believe me, I am angrier at myself than you are at me. But I also chafe when I feel criticism is unfair - if I am being asked to shoulder the shame and guilt of something when others contributed to the problem. But that turns on the same point about negativity as well - so long as the topic under discussion is you and how bad you fucked up and how low you have to kowtow to someone in power, the criticism is damaging. If it's about learning from a mistake without making it an ad hominem or shaming exercise, then it can be positive.
posted by LN at 11:36 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Agreed, Michele in California. The most valuable part of the article for me was how it pointed out that saying "don't do it that way" imposes a heavy cognitive load on the listener. All you know when you hear that is to stop doing what you're doing. There are lots of possibilities for what to do instead; which one do you pick? Hence the "deer in headlights".

It's much easier for the listener if you just say, "do it this way". That can be translated into action immediately.
posted by clawsoon at 11:37 AM on March 23, 2015 [14 favorites]

Thorzdad: Everyone should sit-in on a few upper-level studio critiques in art school if you want to see bluntly-critical-yet-highly-constructive* feedback at work.

I was a landscape architecture undergrad for a while, and one of our earliest courses was a basic drawing and presentation course, and the professor included a lot of lessons for our future careers, including the note that criticism of your work is not criticism of you. Some students took this lesson to heart faster and more thoroughly than others, as is the case everywhere.

Some people realize this and want you to get right to it, and others take all criticism of their work as a personal attack. That is the trickiest part of giving feedback, especially as a manager. What kind of person is the recipient of criticism? And how bluntly do they really want to hear it? How much do they know about the source of their mistake/ shortcoming in the product? Did they try to take a shortcut and it failed, or did they not know the right way to do something? Can you simply say "that was wrong," or do you need to coax them down the right path, or take their hand for the first time and let them do it themselves from then on?
posted by filthy light thief at 11:39 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I thought it was a solid article.

But extrapolating from 'one work culture' to 'work-cultures' in general is a big step that might require more research or experience. And even though the title explicitly says 'criticism' but the article then uses 'critical feedback' as interchangeable probably loses people who think of critical feedback as a distinct practice (probably people in the liberal and fine arts) from the most literal definition of criticism.

But I look forward to more well written articles from this person!
posted by 99_ at 11:40 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been trying to focus on the work, not the person. This is really difficult to do, and to communicate. At work, I try to compliment the person, frequently, sincerely, and then criticize the work, specifically, and only during feedback sessions designated for that purpose. And even then, I try to mainly make suggestions for improvements or redirection, not tearing down.

On preview, what LN said. The work, not the person. And suggestions, not negations.
posted by George Malloy at 11:40 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I too bristle at the term "critical" as a synonym for "negative". Because the opposite of critical isn't "positive" it is "unimportant". And criticism is a skill which you can certainly hone - the skill being discussed here. As referenced above, I learned a great deal about effective criticism from active participation in ten semesters of architecture studio presentations.

Effective criticism helps you identify both what you could have done better in the past and what actions you might try in the future to get to new outcomes. Effective criticism comes from a place of both people in the conversation working together towards a shared goal. Effective criticism can almost never occur where the people involved don't see themselves as part of the same team. And that is the fundamental dysfunction of most work places, far more so than word choice. If your relationship with your manager is that you see them as a work extractor and they see you as a recalcitrant child then no language or tone will matter.

With that off my chest, I wholeheartedly agree that it is far far more effective tell people what you would like them to do instead of what you would like them to not do. Including yourself. Please remember works better than don't forget. At least in my life.
posted by meinvt at 11:44 AM on March 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

I was just reading a number of articles about the sandwich technique making bosses feel good whereas not as much for the employees on the receiving end. We are taught as child educators the importance of positive redirection and direct feedback of what to do as mentioned above by Michele.

There's actually a lot of research on how to effectively give feedback to improve performance. It's ironic that those who give feedback because they believe employee performance matters, don't necessarily check out the research behind their own methods and whether they are using the most effective ones or not.

My best bosses give feedback right away. "We need to make sure these papers get filed by the end of the day each day" if they see it wasn't done. A lot of the articles I'm reading right now that describe research done it seem to describe that is being most effective. Correcting behavior is easiest to do if you let people know about it right away so it doesn't get entrenched and they don't have to experience a sudden realization that you've been dissatisfied with them days/weeks or months and still smiling and acting like everything's fine. That makes people uneasy going forward because they know you're not really going to tell them how they doing unless they wait for a review. Giving people a positive goal to shoot for is always going to get better results than shaming for a negative. Telling people right away what you want to see from them when you want it, builds trust and let's people know you're going to be upfront about where they stand and how they're doing, and helps them feel secure when you do tell them they're doing great that you're given them an honest appraisal of where they stand.

Rather than kicking people into a mold that fulfills the (smaller portion of the human population) that are managers, we could design business to be human friendly and work with human nature rather than against it.
posted by xarnop at 11:45 AM on March 23, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'm someone who really values constructive criticism - it's incredibly useful to my own growth to have someone who takes the time to see what I'm doing wrong and how I can fix it. The author defined critical feedback as something that encompasses both constructive criticism - which is useful to me, and regular-old criticism - which is generally not that useful. I also think that learning to accept constructive criticism is an essential life skill for being an adult, but not one that comes pre-formed in people.

I think you can get by using only positives if whatever you are commenting on already meets minimum standards (ie, sometimes you have to tell kids not to bite each other, not just that you like it when they express anger using their toys). It's also fine if you are working with people who are able to intuitively understand what you are getting at - that keeping your elbow up is the same as not dropping your elbow.

I also think that the poop-sandwich approach does help somewhat in the problem of over-correcting women and minorities. Of course, they have to be done genuinely and thoughtfully, but if you are thinking up 2 positives for every negative, that might help correct against biases. It might also help higher-ups recognize positives about working with people the might not have consciously noticed.
posted by fermezporte at 11:46 AM on March 23, 2015

I've always felt like in the context of something like an engineering team the goal is to eventually develop the kind of relationship with each member where there is an obvious mutual respect such that a.) they don't feel like criticism of an idea is criticism of their ability and b.) they know the assumption works both ways and their forthright input on your ideas is welcome. Getting to this point with a new person, especially someone not steeped in the "traditional" culture of engineering can be delicate, not to mention making it work across formal or informal hierarchies. When my S.O. decided she wanted to learn some programming I was ashamed to find that she was very reluctant to show me her code or ask questions because she was afraid I'd tear her work apart.
posted by atoxyl at 12:07 PM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

This article was interesting to me as someone who works in sales. There is definitely a sales management philosophy out there that assumes the opposite of this article; that if you criticize a person enough to where they fear their job is in danger it will light a fire under the person and motivate him or her to work hard to be successful or else face dire consequences.

Maybe this technique works on some people, but I'm definitely not one of them. At my previous job, my boss embraced this "motivation through negative reinforcement" philosophy and all it really did to me was make me think the job was not secure enough and that I should keep my eye out for better opportunities. I was pretty much planning my exit strategy a few months in.
posted by The Gooch at 12:09 PM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm awful at receiving criticism, from myself or others. One thing I've noticed, though, is if the criticism is also accompanied by "this is a common mistake" or "everyone does that" it helps quite a bit.

The other thing is people have limited capacities to understand things and to fix things. Giving a list of things that are wrong is easy to do and hard to act upon. Good critics understand causal chains and will recognize that criticizing B, C, D, E and F are pointless and demoralizing if mastery of A is the key to doing better on B and C.
posted by maxwelton at 12:19 PM on March 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

I've never done one of these before, but--

Metafilter: [when] someone leads with "this is bad because [of political or aesthetic or whatever-by-fiat] reasons", we almost inevitably (and this is a group of fairly intelligent, sophisticated adults) get a situation where some people who didn't think Thing was bad feel defensive, factions form in the class, the entire discussion revolves around hashing out the most minute points about whether it was "bad" or not and we lose focus on how the work actually does its thing.
posted by Kat Allison at 12:50 PM on March 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

The Manager Tools podcast guys have another feedback routine that I like much better when it is used on me (and I've found it useful when I need to give feedback). Whenever I've gotten the sandwich delivery, I never hear any content in the pro forma "bread."
posted by janell at 1:10 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Talking about constructive criticism without looking at power dynamics is completely useless. My approach to constructive criticism is going to be very different between people I have power over, my peers, or if those have power over me.

Oh and add to the list of people who think, at least in a professional setting, the shit sandwich is aptly named. Noone wants that crap, and noone is fooled. That doesn't mean you shouldn't make sure to highlight good things as well as the bad, but I'd much prefer if there is problem that it was clear what it was and what improvement means.
posted by aspo at 1:11 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

From xarnop's link:
Finally, by expressing that you may not have all the information and that you may even have contributed to the problem, you shift the meeting from one in which you’re simply telling Alex and Stacey what you think to a meeting in which all of you are exploring together what happened and planning how to move forward.

This transparent, mutual learning approach doesn’t work better than the unilaterally controlling sandwich approach simply because you are saying different words. It works because you’ve shifted your mindset. ...Giving negative feedback transparently means respecting your direct reports, not controlling or alienating them;
I would have likely written that a bit differently, but I generally think it is good. It could use a little different framing in some respects and a whole lot more detail.

I think the change in mindset and the point about respecting people are really important. The part about admitting you may not have all the information is super important. Most of the time, negative feedback is really rooted in a blamey, accusatory mental model and, more importantly, is rooted in the usually flawed assumption that the person giving it has all pertinent information and knows better than you why you did it, what you should have done, etc. That is just often not the case.

People with a third person perspective of events are typically missing vast quantities of important information. That doesn't mean they have nothing of value to add or that what they saw and think is useless. But, very often, people in leadership positions are exercising hubris and contempt more than authority, and it is frequently rooted in a fundamental sense of insecurity. Admitting you don't know everything is viewed as a position of weakness, one that opens you to attacks. The truth is that is only so if you haven't really earned the respect of the people you are in charge of and a good way to lose their respect is to assume you know all the info when you don't and then give crappy, negative (attacking) feedback from a place of insecurity, rooted in the idea that they should do as they are told because of your title.

But the reality is that admitting you don't have all the information, treating your people with respect, earning their trust so they will talk with you and, thus, getting access to the information they have that you lack is all to the good. It is a good way to earn their genuine respect. It is only risky with new people who are coming from a background where things are handled in the stereotypically crappy way of just ordering people around without really respecting them and thus you are facing a lot of assumptions about what assholes leaders typically are and the negative motives they typically employ and so on. Over time, setting this as the standard creates a more functional social environment. There is a learning curve with the new people who don't yet know this is how it will work and the sooner you start modeling the more positive thing, the better. If they can't be won over, you will eventually need to part ways anyway. The sooner you know that, the better too.
posted by Michele in California at 1:13 PM on March 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

I get a kick out of the people saying "Don't sugarcoat it, just give me feedback!" because in my own experience, whenever someone tells me they can handle straight criticism, I think "Oh, good!" and then they have reacted very poorly when given exactly that. My approach these days is to cushion the negative feedback with positive things, until I've developed enough of a rapport to be able to cut it down to "You screwed up, don't panic, fix it, and if you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it."
posted by Leviathant at 1:14 PM on March 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'm more honest: don't give me negative feedback, you don't know me, you don't know what it's like.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:18 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

To be more serious, I've found that in my particular career trajectory any sort of feedback from people formally in charge of me has been pointless and always been to protect the interests of the company, rather than a honest evaluation. But that's the lot of the IT conslutant, always working outside of the sight of the formal hierarchy they supposedly report to.

Which makes those evalution discussions every three to six months so painful, as we both lie to each other about how important it is to adhere to $latest_company_fad and why $meaningless_unpaid_busy_work is so important.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:22 PM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I liked this a lot, and it very much does remind me of (good) parenting advice. Since kids are people too, I think good management advice and good parenting advice are often very similar. (I think the "shit sandwich" approach is not good advice for either, incidentally. Though maybe slightly better than giving someone unsandwiched shit.)

Some similar rules-of-thumb from my favorite parenting book "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk," include:

Alternatives to punishment

1: Express your anger without attacking character ["I am really disappointed. We missed a big opportunity."]
2: State your expectations clearly [this is basically the point of the linked article]
3: Tell them what they need to do to make amends. [and this too]
5: Problem-solve [brainstorming session to find a workaround that will prevent the problem from happening again]

Engaging Cooperation

1: Describe the problem you see. [Instead of putting someone down when they mess something up. In a work context,"We're over budget on this project" instead of "You need to do a better job tracking your spending."]
2: Give information [ie, explain why it's a problem, if it's not obvious]
3: Say it with a word [one or two words are often enough to remind someone of a responsibility they already know they're supposed to attend to, without criticizing. In a work context, "Jane -- monthly report!" as you pass in the hall]
4: Describe what you [or the customer, or senior management] feel [in a work context: "The customer is not going to be happy if we can't make this work." "Senior management feels this is our most important task."]


1: Describe what you see. [Rather than merely evaluating it. "You met the deadline and came in under budget" vs just "Great job."]
2: Describe what you [or the customer or the company] feel. ["These numbers give me confidence that we're on the right track" or "this was exactly what the customer wanted."]
3: Sum up what they did right with a word ["You realized there was a problem and found a solution. That's what I call 'initiative.'"]

This kind of descriptive (rather than evaluative) praise, given freely, is way more effective than criticism in my experience. Both at work and at home.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:53 PM on March 23, 2015 [32 favorites]

I think the sandwich technique is weak. You feed people shit in a sandwich they still know you are feeding them shit. Up your game!
posted by jcworth at 2:08 PM on March 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's strange to think, but most every art school across the globe has been giving constructive criticism for at least 50 years. A friend of mine who taught anatomy at medical school thought our method of teaching and grading should be employed at all medical schools, for patient safety.
Our problem is that a few art professors still insist their argument cannot be argued beyond emotion. Which is, in my opinion, bullshit.

On the other hand, the gender issue is something real. I have few practical solutions for that beyond hiring the best which are often women. Which is what I do.
posted by mumimor at 3:19 PM on March 23, 2015

This reminds me of the book First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. It's based on surveys that Gallup conducted over 25 years with more than 1 million employees to try to tease out what made a manager great. And they found pretty similar things -- people actually performed better on teams where the manager focused on their employees' strengths rather than weaknesses. It goes against the traditional model of looking at all the things that an employee is supposed to be good at and then zeroing in on the one or two things that are "areas of improvement". I don't have the book on me at the moment, but I'll just quote from this summary of the book:
Conventional wisdom says that people can achieve anything if they simply work hard enough and correct their weaknesses. The result is that people hear little about their strengths and a lot about their shortcomings. This focus only creates frustration and resentment in the employee. It’s no way to create excellent performance...

Great managers “hold up the mirror” and excel at giving performance feedback. They hold regular feedback sessions with each employee, be it once a month or once a quarter. They begin each session with a brief review of past performance to help employees think in detail about their style and to spark a conversation about the talents and non-talents that created this style. Then the focus shifts to the future and how the employee can use her style to be more productive. Often the discussion will revolve around partnering the employee with another who has talents that could complement her non-talents. They also set unique expectations designed to help her focus and develop her talents...

Great managers also make sure each employee is cast in a role that plays to their talents — a role that they are naturally wired to do. Casting for talent is one of the biggest success secrets of great managers. They will make sure that their aggressive ego-driven salesperson takes on the territory that requires a fire to be lit underneath it. And, they will cast their patient relationship building salesperson into the territory that requires careful nurturing.

posted by peacheater at 3:19 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Has anyone done any research on not calling your people "reports"? Because that term (as well as other dehumanizing ones) gnaws at my very core.

The field of Human Capital Management will take this under advisement
posted by thelonius at 5:10 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

is this the right spot to sort of politely lean and say, "f*** management culture, f*** the whole self-supporting delusion of capital M management types everywhere that they are fundamentally necessary (and more so every day, so hurry up and hire more managers), or else why have all these books been published? Also, seminars."

There are, of course, some good managers. They're actually quite easy to spot as they're usually found asleep in their office, or reading a good book (not about management) -- things being so well managed that their hovering presence is not required.
posted by philip-random at 5:58 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like the "don't tell them what you don't want, tell them what you do want" philosophy in general too. I mean, if you're really bad at this and could only know one thing, this is the most bang for the buck.

But for most of us, this is pretty firmly in "no shit" territory. And for some people, that's the wrong thing to do. Some people need (and appreciate) a more military, "Look, see what you're doing there? Don't ever do that again" style. Some potentially dangerous situations call for that even if the person doesn't like it. It's memorable, when used sparingly. The real trick is in knowing your people and tailoring your style to their needs. Having a lot of tools in the toolbox, knowing which one is appropriate from moment to moment, and being comfortable using the right one, not just your favorite.
A martial artist who drills exclusively to a set pattern of combat is losing his freedom. He is actually becoming a slave to a choice pattern and feels that the pattern is the real thing. It leads to stagnation because the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, but constantly changes from moment to moment, and the disappointed combatant will soon find out that his 'choice routine' lacks pliability.
- Bruce Lee
posted by ctmf at 6:39 PM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also whenever possible I like to limit my suggestions for improvement to the top two or three, even if I have a giant list of minor things. Of course a report has to be correct; all the errors have to get fixed before it's done. But other things... I mean I could criticize a technician's survey technique all day long, but realistically they can only focus on and practice a few improvements at a time. We'll catch some others next time.

Sitting them down and cataloging every detail is discouraging and demeaning, even with the best of intentions, even couched in positive, constructive language with clear objective goals. It's just too much.
posted by ctmf at 7:06 PM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

I thought the article was kind of surface-level "Don't make people feel bad about themselves, use positivity". And also I found it hard to read personally because as an English major, I found it hard to revert away from what is apparently the 3rd definition of criticism, "the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc." I wish that happened to me more.

I second condemning the shit sandwich approach. If you have something nice to say, say it. If you have something difficult to say about a change I need to make to my deliverable because of reasons you will share with me, say that. If I have hurt your feelings, please let me know so I can apologize. Those are all pieces of information I need. You don't need to couch them in something else.

If you simply don't "like" something I did for reasons you can't articulate (something that happens to me 100% more often than any of the above)? If you have negative feedback that mostly revolves around me speaking up for myself? Then well, what am I supposed to do with that? I'm going to react negatively because you apparently don't respect me enough to take the time to actually think about what I've presented or understand the problem we're working on.

Has anyone done any research on not calling your people "reports"? Because that term (as well as other dehumanizing ones) gnaws at my very core.
posted by Joakim Ziegler

My favorite thing is referring to people as "resources". As in, "We need a resource to work on __ project." I'm a tree! I'm the ocean! I'm here for you to violently pull from my home, process in a factory, and use as raw materials in manufacturing!
posted by bleep at 7:55 PM on March 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

People are different, is the thing.

I strongly, strongly, strongly avoid and resist condemnation and adverse criticism. I hate conflict. I love and seek praise.

But--and it's taken me a long time to accept this fact--I respond better to adverse criticism; that is, when I'm criticized, I seethe internally but I often respond better and become more productive.

As an educator, I often find that my field is almost pathologically afraid of negativity. We're taught that the worst thing we can do is hurt our students' pride or shame them in any way. But recent studies show that cold-calling on students in class is one of the most effective pedagogical tactics--what gives?

Obviously a martinet is an ineffective educator, but strict, harsh taskmasters (like so many famed sports coaches, military leaders, and, yes, educators) can often get great results as well.

I did RTFA, and I found it facile and reductive. Its sources are almost all anecdotal (How to Win Friends and Influence People, really?) and it ignores the fact that there are actual studies about this stuff now. It's borderline ostrich-head-in-the-sand willfully ignorant these days to write about things like this without reviewing the literature, and this article instead relies on vanity self-help books by robber barons from four generations ago? Zuh, I say. Zuh.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:48 PM on March 23, 2015

The opposite of "no shit sandwich" isn't "no positive words ever". If shit sandwich is all you're ever served then you start to wince when you see bread.
posted by bleep at 9:10 PM on March 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yeah, I'm an idiot and you're right. I stand by the rest of my comment though. I also stand by being an idiot.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:31 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If history is any guide, the contingency is remote.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:43 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, MoonOrb, I hate all-negative too, but the sandwich thing doesn't help. If you have something nice to say, just say it any time. I know the "trick" too. When you save the good comments (wtf) for softening negative things, I know you just made it up just now to have something positive-sounding to say and don't really mean it. Praise is a lot more effective when it's timely to what I've done and when it stands alone (i.e., doesn't always come with a but...)
posted by ctmf at 9:49 PM on March 23, 2015

is this the right spot to sort of politely lean and say, "f*** management culture, f*** the whole self-supporting delusion of capital M management types everywhere that they are fundamentally necessary (and more so every day, so hurry up and hire more managers)

As a someone who's but a cog in the vast corporate behemoth, who has had managers managing groups as small as three and as large as 20+, more managers are definitely better, in my experience. It gives them the time to actually manage.

A manager that did a bit of a number on me - both while I was in the job, and for a while afterwards - would, I think, have been perfectly serviceable had she been grappling with a team of 4-6, rather than 19. Likewise, a perfectly serviceable manager who never really upskilled me, but did no harm, would have been absolutely hopeless had there been more than 3 of us.
posted by smoke at 3:17 AM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I felt criticized by this article. It was as if I were being told I was doing everything wrong, even though I'm not really particularly negative.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:05 AM on March 24, 2015

"Maybe we all need to instead just toughen up a bit"

Has this advice ever actually applied to anything it was said in response to, like, ever? I know that people love burping it up whenever someone, somewhere talks about how General Patton slapping soldiers and calling them faggots and Jews for suffering "nerves" isn't effective and maybe we should try something that actual research has proven more effective, but Jesus Christ.

It's like the colloquial version of those insipid memes about how "when I was a kid, we didn't have pussy safety helmets and we turned out fine!" that ignores the scores of kids crippled and killed by shitty, unregulated toys and products.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:50 AM on March 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

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