Emma: Today we’re talking about delivering a certain flavor of feedback: the kind where the root behavior is good and worthy of being cultivated, but the results are bad and need to change.
Andy: It’s a “yes, but no” type of feedback. It can be for all sorts of things. Maybe your direct report tries to help out another team (good!), but gives them inaccurate information and it mushroom-clouds into a serious issue (bad).
Emma: Maybe they are showing initiative (good!), but the emails they are blasting out to important people are inappropriate (bad).
Andy: Maybe they tried to solve a problem on their own (good!), but they only made it worse (bad). Lol I can feel everyone grimacing as they read this. I too have a very visceral reaction to these types of bad-bad-not-goods.
Emma: They always take me by surprise. Show me the work, and I can give you feedback all day. Show me someone with good intentions who is making wacky decisions, and I’m going to need a minute.
Andy: Right, because what we’re talking about isn’t as simple as, “Don’t ever do that again.” You don’t want someone to go back to their desk and think, “Well, that’s the last time I ever help anyone out.”
Emma: I mean, maybe you do.
Andy: True. If so, have at it! But most of the time, it’s more nuanced: Great impulse, bad result. You need to deliver the kind of feedback that cultivates and eradicates, in the same motion. It’s hard!
“Yes, but No” Feedback
Our recipe for YbN feedback has five ingredients. They can go in any order.
- Direct and honest articulation of the problem
- Direct and honest articulation of the good stuff
- Context for both the problem and the good stuff
- A remedy or resolution
- No audible frustration
Ideally, this happens as an in-person conversation and you have the time and space to thoroughly explain your point of view — this type of feedback is hard to have in the heat of the moment. If you give fly-by feedback as you’re trying to put out the fire, plan on circling back around in your next 1-on-1. That will also give you enough time to put together what you want to say and enough distance to tamp out any annoyance in your voice. Consider practicing out loud.
Here are some examples from our own lives:
For an urgent reply that caused more confusion
Hey, real quick: the email you sent is causing some confusion. It’s great you sent it out so quickly, not great that it’s stirring the pot more than settling it. Want to hop over here and help me draft a reply that’ll calm things down?
For helpful advice that was actually harmful
Your impulse to help answer questions is right on — but when you don’t give the right answer, it’s more harmful than helpful. Your suggestion to Irene that she submit the T700 form cost us $14,000 as a company. It’s a lot of money. I’d like you to embody some “First do no harm” thinking going forward. So, let’s outline together how to get double confirmation whenever you’re helping out.
For inventive ideas distracting from the work at hand
Thank you for all of the new operational ideas you’ve been sending me. You are creative and inventive and I’m truly excited to get into them. I’m going to work on creating a program that will give you time to work on new ideas, without taking a hit to your productivity. Over the past four weeks, you have fallen behind on your daily work — your productivity numbers are low. And, for some straight talk: no matter how many great ideas you have, you’ll be assessed at year end on your productivity numbers. So, you need to refocus your effort and get that productivity number back up. It’s important for two reasons: your year-end review, and also it will be a lot easier for me to nominate you for the new program if your productivity numbers are solid.
Emma: It’s one thing to get criticism on the work I’m turning in every day. I’ve been trained enough throughout my career to at least pretend I don’t take it personally. But we don’t typically have day-to-day systems in place to critique behavior and judgement and ability, which are all deeply entwined with our sense of selves. Feedback on that feels especially pointy.
Andy: It’s also hard to bounce back from criticism about your judgement center. It’s a different feeling than learning something like “You talk too fast during presentations.” I can hear the speed I talk at; my poor-judgement brain has a tough time judging its own poor judgement. Kind of meta, but also why it’s hard.
Emma: Which isn’t to say that it’s a manager’s job to soften the blow by giving mealy-mouthed sandwich feedback — or even to soften the blow at all. If you like to call it like you see it, as soon as you see it, I’m not going to tell you to change course, and I doubt Andy will either.
Andy: Nope, not I!
Emma: Setting someone back on their heels can make a lasting impact. I remember to this day being told very directly in a performance review at my first job out of college: I needed to stop joking about our clients — I sounded whiney, childish, and mean.
Emma: Yeah, I was floored. The culture of the office was sarcastic and, yes, a little mean, and I thought I was just one of the crew. It was ultimately such a valuable lesson, and I still think about it whenever I hear myself talk about the people and clients I work with, or when I’m reflecting on how I want to be perceived by my boss and coworkers.
But I wouldn’t say it was very efficient feedback. Now, 11 years later, it resonates. At 21, I thought it was kind of bullshit. Part of this is just age and maturity, yes. I didn’t know how to digest a straight shot of feedback at that point in my life. I would have preferred it in strawberry daiquiri form: just as potent, but something I could keep on drinking. That’s our whole point.
Andy: In addition to delivering the feedback well, I’ve found the actions I take directly after I deliver it have a surprising amount of influence on how quickly it metabolizes and gets the results I want. This is when I channel my favorite movie coaches: they are tough, but they believe. The tough talk isn’t the last interaction they have with their players for weeks. They’re back in the gym the next day and the next and the next.
Emma: These are our top three post-feedback go-to’s. What are yours? Send us an email, or drop a comment on Instagram.
Our Top 3 Post-Feedback Go-To’s
Clean it up together. It’s pretty painful to know you made a mess, but not have any hand in righting the situation. Lessen the alienation by getting the person involved in the clean up alongside you, whether it’s co-drafting a clarifying email, brainstorming solutions, or tracking down new data. Don’t frame it as punishment; this is about teamwork. It will also help them see the stakes, and know your feedback is rooted in real consequences.
Design safeguards. How can you promote the good underlying behavior in a way that’s safe? Perhaps you can have them loop you in before the email draft goes out on the next two sends. Or have them check their helpful feedback with a co-signer. Maybe you create a template, or have a process where they can check a manual. The goal is for you both to feed confident moving forward. Beware of micro manager impulses by setting parameters. If your response is “Have me look at every email you ever send forever,” then their reaction just might be, “Well, let’s see just how few emails I ever have to send!”
Focus on the next three interactions. Pointy feedback can knock someone off balance. You can leave them to right themselves, or you can expedite the process by pulling them back forward during your next few encounters. It doesn’t have to be a big parade — even something like a casual conversation about a TV show can act as a reset. We also like asking for their help on something where they truly shine: “Hey, can you show me how to pull that report you created?”
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: YbN Edition