Don't Hold Back on Negative Feedback

Steven Berglas

This seems counterintuitive in a nation like ours—obsessed with Political Correctness and the suppression of harsh words—yet if corporate leaders always swallow their emotions, failing to give voice to negative feedback, they do so at their peril.

When a CEO is conducting a performance review with his COO, this is a time when unabashed candor, PC or not, is absolutely appropriate. People need unvarnished, direct, no-holds-barred feedback from CEOs; if they don’t get it, they resent, or possibly develop contempt for the CEO.

Everyone loathes ambiguity. Ambiguity, although it may seem like a benign annoyance, is an intolerable emotional state to endure when the consequences of Windex-clear feedback really matter. Absent the whole truth, people reflexively fill informational voids with "worst case scenarios" in order to be prepared to cope.

If your physician performs several blood tests, and you hear nothing back for weeks, assuming all is well may buoy your mood, but soon you’ll be plagued by fantasies of every illness that may account for the fatigue. This is a hard-wired reaction: Our minds force us to be on the ready-to-fight illness in order to maximize the likelihood that we’ll prevail.

As Andy Grove noted when he was given the diagnosis of prostate cancer, knowing the enemy lets you construct a battle plan and begin mounting a counteroffensive. Languishing in ambiguity is akin to fighting a cloud: There’s nothing you can do.

Honesty Is Best

Well-entrenched, well-respected CEOs are often loath to give negative feedback to direct reports owing, among other reasons, to a sense of loyalty and noblesse oblige: They feel blessed to be where they are, and empathize with how they assume those who receive negative feedback will react. This attitude is beneficial if "tempering bad news" is the result. It is destructive if suppressing bad news is the tack CEOs take. This latter, ill-considered response, occurs most often when:

• The leader wants the protêgê he is grooming to be his successor to thrive, and fears that a rebuke will derail him. Unfortunately, boilerplate encouragement is dissonant to any heir to a corner office worth occupying it—that person values critical feedback from his boss the same way a golfer with an 18 handicap welcomes advice from a golf pro.

• The leader operates from the perspective that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. This may be true for flies, but not future leaders. Any junior executive (JE) who knows he’s on shaky ground—as all JEs who merit negative performance reviews do—wants feedback about just how shaky that ground is. When his boss doesn’t tell him the truth, the JE will assume that the feedback being withheld is so bad his boss is avoiding a discussion of it until the time comes for him to be axed.

• The leader believes that in a PC culture, being known as hostile or aggressive has negative long-term consequences, such as not being invited to sit on boards. Hence, the leader adopts a he’ll grow out of it or wait-and-see attitude toward reprimanding direct reports. However, these postures only serve to arouse ambiguity and, ultimately, contempt.

• The leader fears an open and candid discussion of performance. This fear is unfounded, since most JEs know what their performance reviews should be before they receive them. Rather than being devastated by negative reviews, most are relieved to discuss them openly with their boss. Once Junior hears that he must shape up and start achieving desired results—and will not be fired but has another six months to show what he can do—he is relieved and can start making amends. Absent an un-PC feedback session, the state of ambiguity he’d be forced to endure makes Dante’s inferno seem like a Caribbean resort.

My views on the expression of anger are neither new nor unique. Aristotle noted, "Anyone can become angry—that is easy; but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not within everyone’s power, and that’s not easy." I suggest three guidelines:

• Before being angry with an employee, map out the issue you wish to discuss to rule-out extraneous influences. It is said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. Before you critique the father of a failure, make certain you can intelligently discuss if or how other parties or agencies may contribute to the problem. This precludes the that’s not fair defense, and makes criticism seem constructive. By showing empathy and sharing a subordinate’s view, you seem aligned with him. Absent this full appraisal, you are seen as a pompous ass breaking his chops.

• When possible, condemn behaviors—not the person. Duffers don’t want to hear, "You suck at golf," but welcome, "you’ll drop your handicap by five strokes when you stop choking your club." If you know that it is correct to feel angry with a subordinate whose execution skills are A+ but who is an interpersonal 800-pound gorilla on LSD, take care to get angry about the fact that a phenomenal talent may be destroyed by his out-of-control temper. If you segregate a problem, or restrict your anger at poor performance to a manageable issue versus a global deficiency, most people are relieved, and can then focus on what they must do to remedy it.

• Honesty is the best policy. Confiding in a person or taking him into your confidences builds his self-esteem and trust in you. One CEO I coached had me shadow a performance review he gave to his chosen successor—a young man he loved like a son. This heir was brilliant but abrasive, and the CEO told him so. He excoriated his protêgê for at least six aspects of his demeanor that alienated people. After he was done and asked his protêgê for comments, the JE said nothing—he just hugged his boss.

En route to mastering the ability to express anger appropriately, remember the words of Winston Churchill: "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the body—it calls attention to an unhealthy state."

First appeared in Leadership Excellence