Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Feedback is Never Public

Actions to take: Never give feedback, positive or negative, in public. Save it for when you can speak to the person it is intended for individually. If you are the type to speak your opinion on others' actions before you think, learn to master that behavior. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

I once had a boss with no filter. Things like, "That's wrong," "Don't you know you can't do it that way?" and "Why would you think that's okay?" were routine responses to what we, his employees, thought were normal work behaviors. We commiserated with each other and got used to it. But after I transferred, he became the interim for my management position. He was now routinely interacting with people two and three levels below him. Although he was perfectly pleasant in most respects, my old employees were terrified of him. The office became a place of near silence. People stopped making even the most benign comments about their work out of fear that he would berate them in front of everyone.

My old manager's comments were feedback only in the broadest sense of the word. I would describe them more as "useless junk that only served to demoralize," but he probably thought he was helping. He thought that pointing out our flaws in this way was useful. He might have even been doing it in front of people on purpose, to give us that extra little bit of incentive not to mess up in the future.

The thing is, shaming comments are always ineffective, no matter your intentions. Any comment that frames an issue as "you did bad" or "you should have known better" is a form of punishment, and that goes double when there is a crowd. My old boss's actions violated multiple fundamental principles about proper management: 

  • Punishment is fine for compliance, terrible for commitment. Giving negative feedback in front of an audience is on the mild side as punishments go, and people will get over it. But it is just not a smart way to manage. When it comes to lasting change, is simply more effective to engage people's motivational feelings and desire to be our best selves, rather than engaging negative feelings that rely on embarrassment or shame. Shame-based feelings will get us to fix or hide that individual issue. Motivation-based feelings will get us thinking about how to improve generally. 
  • We wouldn't want it done to us, so we shouldn't do it to others. Raise your hand if you like it when your mistakes are aired in front of a crowd. Raise your hand if you need to have an audience hear your mistakes before you are willing to change them. Nobody, right? Some bosses might say, "Yea, well I don't need it, but they..." However they finish that sentence, they are wrong. Your employees are just as capable and mature as you when it comes to their work.
  • It is unnecessarily tough management. Any negative emotion you show as a boss gets magnified in your employee's perception. What feels like mild annoyance to you sounds like complete condemnation to them. Letting someone know about their mistake quietly one-on-one is both the kinder and more effective way of getting better future performance out of them.

You were probably already on board with the idea that bosses should not criticize in public. Here is the harder sell: positive feedback is never public either. 

There is one major reason we do not give positive feedback in public. Feedback is for the individual. A fundamental part of feedback, as we define it at better-boss, is that you have crafted it to help that particular person be better in some particular way based on some particular action they recently took. When others are present for the feedback, it causes two problems. 

  1. The audience will misinterpret it. Imagine that you only have two employees. One is always the first to speak up, leaving little room for others' comments. The other tends to be too quiet about their thoughts. Imagine your quiet employee speaks up, and you give them positive feedback encouraging them to speak up more in the future. What will your other employee conclude? "The boss likes when we share our thoughts! I should also share my thoughts more often!" The feedback one person needs is not the feedback another needs.
  2. Any time there is an audience, it becomes a show. The intended recipient no longer experiences it as feedback. They would instinctually focus on "showing" that they took the feedback, rather than simply taking the feedback. Using our quiet employee example above, that positive feedback hints at a shortcoming that they absolutely do not want others thinking about. The employee now has to navigate and mask feeling exposed in front of a coworker. Even for feedback that is about something the employee already does well, they will have the awkward added task of thinking about what others are thinking about them. 

At this point you may be saying, "Sure, we don't want to give that kind of feedback in public. But sometimes public feedback is good!" 

You are probably thinking of praise. Feedback, even positive feedback, is advice for effective future performance. Feedback is, "Hey, you will do well if you keep doing this thing." It is not a celebration of their work. "Hey, great job!" is praise. That is a separate thing that you should also do. If you want to praise publicly, fine. Though, frankly, you will be surprised how few employees want even praise to be public. 

Feedback is already a complicated social interaction. Don't make it even more complicated by doing it in front of an audience.

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