Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 19, 2022
by Neil Senturia
Recently, I wrote about three qualities that NASA looks for in an employee — one of which is thick skin. That quality supports the idea of not being bothered by criticism or rejection. It is the ability to press on, not be easily distracted, mentally tough.
A recent article by Harvard professor Francesca Gino says that employees “crave feedback.” Are you sure about that? You say you want feedback, but if I don’t say it exactly correctly, in a way that works for you, I run the risk of offending you, and if I get it really wrong, I am going to end up having a long conversation with human resources.
There is a significant disconnect here. As a CEO, I am looking for “marines” and you, the employee, say you want to hear from me in a “constructive” way. I can tell you that my experience with my drill sergeant in the Army was definitely constructive, but not suitable for tender ears.
Gino cites a study where “only four out of 212 people would point out if a woman had an ugly smudge on her face.” Gino goes on to say that all of us think we would give positive feedback in that instance, but in fact, we don’t. Managers are very reluctant to step outside very narrow lines.
A McKinsey survey of 12,000 managers indicated that “they consider candid, insightful feedback critical to career development.” In the study, it turns out that when you are the “receiver” of the feedback, you say you are all in and tell me true, but when the same person switches roles and is asked to be the “giver” of the feedback, not so much, as in I am not touching that third rail.
In actual practice, the givers reported that the fear of offending is greater in their mind than in fact, it “wasn’t as bad as they thought.” If we accept that your employee wants to hear from you, wants to improve, then the question for the entrepreneur/leader is how to effectively give that feedback.
My own technique is to set the stage early and often with all of the team. I tell them repeatedly to “assume positive intent.” That means that I am apologizing in advance, that my primary goal is to try to serve you and the company’s best interests, and that I am not a self-aggrandizing, maniac who uses my corporate position to humiliate or embarrass you in front of your co-workers.
OK, now it’s time to go home and see if we can find a constructive way to talk to our kids. One hoary platitude we sell to our children is to “work hard and you’ll be successful.” Horatio Alger wrote books about “poor boy makes good,” and while that sounds noble and true, we know that there are many other factors, from the color of your skin to just plain dumb luck.
Unlike a structured 100-meter dash, not every child begins on the same starting line. Grit alone is never enough. Are we willing to tell our children the truth? How do we tell them about inequality in a way that creates positive action?
Now let’s integrate home and office. The employee and the child both crave positive feedback, they crave the truth, whether it is the smudge on your nose or the mistake on the construction site. The key to giving assistance in a way that can be understood is to stand in the other person’s shoes, even if they are tiny plastic Crocs (my granddaughter).
If we frame human outcomes only in terms of effort, then it is easy to dismiss the less successful individual as someone who simply “didn’t work hard enough.” And if we teach our children that lesson, then when they are in positions of power, they may well lack the very empathy quotient, which is exactly needed when they give feedback to their employees.
We tell our children that they can be anything they want to be, but that is not the whole truth. There are systemic issues that “make success less likely” for some of us. We will leave a discussion of the definition of success for another time.
And yes, please do tell me if my fly is down.
Rule No. 730: “Drop and give me 20”
— Drill Sgt. Riggs