Picture yourself in this scene:
You’re a manager about to share with a staffer your concerns about a piece of work they’ve given you. Maybe it’s a report, a proposal, a visual project.
You want to make sure the staffer hears your concerns as constructively as possible. What do you do?
“I always start by saying something I like about the work,” a manager once told me. “Then I tell them what I’m concerned about.”
That’s one approach — and a popular one. The problem is once you get to the “concerns,” the staffer forgets about the good stuff.
A seminar participant once called it a “but sandwich.”
What’s a manager to do?
Indeed, managers are all over the place when it comes to giving their staffs feedback. Some give a lot, others apparently are waiting for divine inspiration. But even those who dispense feedback day in and day out often struggle with this question:
How do I most effectively deliver critical feedback?
The first step, I suggest, is to acknowledge that critical feedback is no more important than the positive. It’s all feedback. And we need the positive input just as much as we need feedback that is challenging.
In fact, given the willingness so many of us have to accept that we aren’t that good to begin with, it could be that we need the positive feedback even more.
In any event, it’s safe to say that all of us need to know what we are doing well and what we need to work on. We need the whole package: feedback that points out our strengths and feedback that helps us identify what we need to improve. The best managers know how important that blend is.
At Poynter, before participants come to one of our leadership programs, they ask their boss, colleagues and direct reports to complete a feedback questionnaire and send it to us. We present the participants with that feedback during their seminar.
One of the pleasures of my job is reading that feedback ahead of time. It helps me make sure the curriculum we’ve planned will be as relevant as possible.
It also reminds me about the power of feedback — and how much more powerful it is when it addresses both strengths and challenges.
The feedback forms ask six questions, five of which seek to identify the manager’s strengths (though some respondents quite creatively include their criticisms in their answers). The sixth question asks what the manager could do to become more effective.
Taken as a whole, the questionnaires tell the participants they do many things well. Some are told they are good listeners, others are applauded for their editing or their creativity. Some are told (to their great surprise) that they are organized, and others get kudos for effectively managing change.
Those same managers also receive some suggestions: Speak up more in meetings, be more supportive of others’ ideas, give me more feedback. Please.
Often, the key to dealing with those “suggestions” can be found in the manager’s strengths. What you do well can provide the “juice” for improving in other areas.
For example, if I am a good listener, I can use that skill to work with my staffers on the development of their ideas. If I am good at dealing with change, I can use that to help my staffers adapt and move ahead in times such as these. If I am creative, I can bring that skill to those meetings that others want me to participate in more fully.
So knowing what I’m good at is essential to my ability to improve.
This is a major realization if you’re struggling with how to deliver a complete package of feedback — strengths and weaknesses. If the delivery I choose causes me to shortchange our discussion of the staffer’s strengths, I have failed. If my delivery includes my staffer’s strengths only to blunt the sting of my criticisms, then that staffer will not receive a complete picture of her performance.
Beware the “but” sandwiches. It’s not to say you won’t have days when you want to share something good and something critical. Some days you will.
But here’s the problem.
Managers too often focus on delivering feedback one interaction at a time. They worry about how they’ll give the staffer feedback on this story, this meeting, this issue. They treat each situation as a discrete encounter instead of one in a long series of conversations.
Instead, what if you pulled back your camera and took a wide shot — one that looks at your feedback relationship with the staffer as a whole, not one conversation at a time?
Try this: Pick any member of your staff and think about the conversations you have with that person about their work. When you think of those conversations in the aggregate, how would you describe them? Are they positive in nature? Negative? Do they occur organically—sometimes celebrating something positive, sometimes suggesting a different approach? Do the conversations feel natural? Or scripted?
If you take this question outside work and think of an important relationship in your personal life, my guess is your conversations are not a series of perfectly balanced positive-and-critical discussions. I’ll bet your interactions are sometimes positive and sometimes difficult. Hopefully they are always genuine — and honest.
The problem with “but” sandwiches and similar deliveries is that they can be artificial constructs and thus can introduce suspicion and skepticism into the relationship.
The staffer is thinking:
“You’re only telling me you like that so you can tell me what you don’t like.”
Then there’s the daily critique — another of those potentially artificial constructs. In some newsrooms they take the form of an editor’s email, in others a meeting. I’ve had journalists tell me they lost all faith in the critique, and for a variety of reasons related to “delivery.”
“He never says anything critical. We’re not that good.”
“She is obviously trying to spread the praise around. Some of the work she highlights is mediocre.”
“He plays favorites.”
It seems to me that managers who want their feedback to be heard in the most constructive way need to do this:
Build a relationship with each staffer that assumes feedback will be exchanged naturally and appropriately.
Here’s how to get started:
Give a lot of it. As long as feedback is given sparingly, it will remain a special occasion. Too much will ride on its successful communication. If your staffers only hear from you every few months, they will read way too much into your every word. But if you give your staff a lot of feedback, it stands to reason that on some days you will have something positive to say and on others you will be more (constructively) critical. That’s a natural exchange of feedback.
Pay attention to follow-up. Staffers are most likely to be open to your feedback — even the criticism — if they believe you intend it to help, not punish, them. That’s another reason why you want these exchanges to be frequent; if repeatedly, you not only point out a staffer’s weaknesses but also help to address them, trust in you will grow. You won’t need a “but sandwich.”
Invite feedback of your own performance. Periodically, after sharing your thoughts about a staffer’s performance, ask the staffer how you are doing. At first you might not get a substantive answer, but again, the key here is frequency. If you ask often enough, you’ll eventually get an answer — and then the challenge is yours. What will you do with their feedback?
Share expertise. Getting this one right really matters. In many newsrooms, staff can do some things better than their bosses. It certainly was true in mine. Staffers at the Inquirer could write better stories, make better visuals, edit better, and create better headlines than I could.
I was at my weakest when I pretended that my approach to doing a story or laying out a page was absolutely better than my staffer’s. But wait, you say, that’s your job — to edit. Yes. But again, it’s all in the delivery — making the editing relationship as natural as possible. In a really healthy relationship, neither party is right all the time. In fact, both parties enter a situation knowing that together they can create something superior to what they could create alone.
That’s the relationship you want to create. How?
Ask questions instead of making declarations. Be open to changing your position. Make sure your staffer knows that you value her expertise and expect her to bring it to bear on your work together. When evaluating a piece of work, represent the public that will experience the work instead of asserting your own preferences.
Staffers lose respect for bosses who claim expertise they clearly do not have. If you are going to give a staffer feedback that they will be open to, they must respect you. Remember, your job is not to do better work than your staff. Your job is to help them do their best work.
To do that, they need feedback. Lots of it. Positive and critical.
No buts about it.