“Oh, heavens,” I thought, “I’ve offended her!”
I had wanted to be helpful and friendly, but instead I was confusing and possibly insulting — because I gave feedback as if the problem was with the person, not with the situation.
Here’s what happened: The traffic sequence at the five-way intersection on the corner where I work is totally non-intuitive, and the cycle of lights seems to take forever. So the other day, as I approached the intersection, I did what I usually do: I pushed the button to trigger the walk signal, looked behind me to check for cars coming, and, as soon as there was a break in the traffic, started walking ahead of the light change.
Directly across from me, a woman stood waiting for the walk signal, edging up to the curb and then backing away from it again. Many pedestrians get tense or anxious at this corner, and I wanted to reassure the woman that the extended wait time was caused by the complex traffic model, not because she’d been stupid or inattentive. So as I approached her, I called out, “It’s okay! You just have to get used to the cycle!”
It’s Not About You!
As we passed each other, I saw her face register confusion, and then her expression switched to annoyance, maybe mixed with a little disgust.
Suddenly, I recognized my gaffe. My unskillful comment had suggested to her that she actually was stupid and inattentive, that it was indeed her fault that it had taken so long for the light to change, and that if she worked hard at it, one day she too might learn how to cross the street.
It comes across as criticism, a ding, if the feedback content is about what a person did or didn’t do, or how they did or didn’t do it. It’s natural for the recipient of direct criticism to feel defensive, and therefore resistant. Sometimes direct criticism is necessary, like when an employee hasn’t been accepting or applying feedback and you’re in the midst of a performance-improvement or corrective-action process.
But usually, there’s a more effective way to provide feedback that’s helpful, easy to take in, and simple to apply.
Most people will try to fix their mistakes or shortfalls promptly if they’re not worrying about whether their supervisor hates them or thinks they’re inadequate. They’re much less resistant to feedback when we make clear that there’s a situational problem — and that they can solve it. If we show people that a circumstance or result is wrong — not that they’re wrong — we can create a partnership for change instead of positioning for a battle.
So, particularly if you’re trying to build the kind of trusting relationship that increases employee engagement, it helps to frame corrective comments this way: Describe the unfortunate situation, the negative outcome, and how their desired action will make things better.
Instead of saying, “You left big gaps on the bookshelf. You need to put the books away so there are no gaps,” which declares that the person is wrong, try this: “When there are gaps on the bookshelf, the patrons seem to find the arrangement less appealing, and they often don’t pick up or buy as many books. So as you’re shelving, please be sure to close up the gaps as you go. That will help a lot.”
Taking My Own Advice
Back at the street crossing, I could have said something neutral to the woman, like: “It’s a crazy traffic cycle, isn’t it?” That would have felt more like commiseration, not criticism. And of course, body language, facial expressions, and full attention help too, so it would’ve been better if I’d paused and faced her rather than rushing across the street hollering (which is probably how it seemed).
If one of your job responsibilities is giving feedback, see if you have an interaction coming up where you can apply this approach. With practice, it will become more natural.
Onward and upward,