Can I Give You Some Feedback?
Make your intentions clear
Note: this piece was originally written six months into the pandemic, but the principles still remain true. Timeless, you might say.
“Every calling is great when greatly pursued.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1885
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how so many companies were reluctant to allow people to work from home just over six months ago.
And look at us now.
Well, not all of us. But pretty much anyone who was in an office setting in early March 2020 has had the experience of working remotely for some part of the last six months.
There were many who didn’t have that option, though—their workplace being essential to their trades. There are too many to list individually here, but they provide the backbone of a hidden trillion-dollar industry.
I can’t even begin to imagine the stress, challenges, and anxieties that must be overwhelming people in that situation—people whose livelihoods depend on the livelihoods of others. Bakers and baristas, cobblers and casino employees, housekeepers, and hair stylists.
When we’re at our place of business, it’s not business as usual for them.
Those who are working from home or in some other nomadic scenario may be struggling with loneliness and isolation. And for a fledgling manager who is trying to keep the spirits of her team above water, Zoom calls and Slack messages might be feeble life preservers on which to rely.
Being present, observing nonverbal communication and listening are skills that separate the mediocre manager from the inspirational leader. In physical settings, we can better observe how an employee interacts with us or colleagues, and provide input as appropriate.
“Can I give you some feedback?” is one of the most powerful questions you can ask as a leader.
Asking permission before offering someone some constructive criticism frames the exchange as a mutual conversation, rather than someone getting blindsided with information they didn't want. It gives the recipient of the feedback the power to make the decision.
The magic thing about this question is it works in all aspects of life: with direct reports, with significant others, with friends.
Most emotionally intelligent people will say, “Sure,” because they’re interested in improving. Even if they turn you down, there’s still an opportunity for a conversation — why they’re refusing the offer.
“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1903
Gray Flannel Feedback
Last year, I read Sloan Wilson’s bestseller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for the first time (I know!), and was struck with a marvelous scene that was a masterclass in giving feedback in a way that not only gave the employee a sense of what’s expected, but made him want to do it.
The book is set in the 1950s and the protagonist, Tom Rath, has returned from war and trying to settle in. He gets a job as special assistant to Ralph Hopkins, president of a TV network, who one day asked him write a speech.
Rath put in a first effort, handing his draft to Bill Ogden, a consistently dour and curt middleman to Ralph Hopkins. He was the type who had to insert himself in order to prove his worth. After reading Rath’s first draft, Ogden’s response was:
“Christ! This is awful! It isn’t what we want at all! You can do better than this!”
Not knowing exactly what Ogden meant, Rath didn’t make any changes before turning it in to Hopkins. The boss invited him in and gave him the following feedback:
“Marvelous. You’ve really got the feel for it! This really sings. The heart of the thing is just right! Now let's just go over it together.”
At which point, Hopkins takes the entire speech apart, sentence by sentence before sending Rath on his way, saying,
“You certainly did a grand job! Just fix up the details we’ve worked out and let’s see it again in a few days.”
Rath was halfway to Grand Central Station before he fully realized that Ogden and Hopkins had simply told him the same thing in two different ways: to rewrite the speech.
But here’s the kicker: Hopkins’ approach left him eager to try.
During the following week, Rath had to rewrite the speech four times, each time getting the same set of reactions. He was sure he would have quit in discouragement if it hadn’t been for Hopkins’ praise, which grew in warmth over each successive draft, but somehow never failed to sound sincere.
Words aside, the very demeanor of these two superiors made all the difference. Ogden seemed to be annoyed, as if Rath’s work was inconveniencing him. His curt attitude and abruptness exuded contempt.
Hopkins invited Rath to his apartment to review the speech over drinks. He was reassuring at every turn, even when delivering bad news. Rather than just critiquing the words, he boosted Rath's self-confidence and complimented him in the process.
It’s like a page out of Harry Cohen’s book Be the Sun, Not the Salt.
A negative person or a negative setting can sour a person on a job quickly. We’ve all been there before. We’ve had jobs we dreaded and jobs we desired. Bosses we loathed and bosses we loved. It’s the difference between hiding under the covers until the last possible moment and bounding out of bed to be the first one into the office in the morning.
Study after study shows that people don't leave jobs; they leave their managers. When there’s a crack in the relationship and they don’t feel supported, properly challenged, or haven’t been given proper feedback, they bolt.
With remote work making us ironically more accessible but less discernible — that is, our face may be captured by a camera, but it doesn't tell the whole story — it’s more important than ever that we look out for our team members, boost their morale, and make sure we're listening and observing as much as we can. It means putting more effort into relationships rather than tasks.
Encourage your people to get up and experience the world outside. To read a book or watch a show. To listen to music and play with their pets or kids for a while.
Invite them to provide and receive feedback.
And when you give it, be a Hopkins, not an Ogden.
“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” — Oscar Wilde, 1891
Why do we work? Certainly it is to earn a living, but Simone Weil, a French philosopher and political activist, argued there are other purposes, Richard Gunderman explains Weil’s philosophy of work and her remarkable life that ended at the young age of 34: “good work enables us to be fully present, to be active creators rather than mere spectators, to develop the spiritual side of our natures, to gain insights into the larger purposes of our existence and to come more fully to life.” (Psyche)
Play is a willingness to take on risk, to fail, to feel free and open. At work, that might mean something as big as making a leap into a new career, or as small as voicing an out-there idea during a meeting. (Forge)
Slavery was the energy industry of the ancients—no part of the empire was untouched by its effects. (Lapham's Quarterly)
“A human being must have occupation if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.” — Dorothy L. Sayers, 1947
More than 40% of the jobs lost early in the pandemic were recouped in the following three months, but some economists see worrying signs that the U.S. economy’s bounce-back is falling flat and may take years to fully recover. (CNN Business)
Just because we’re cooped up doesn’t mean professional development has to grind to a halt. Here are the top 20 courses people are taking on LinkedIn to educate themselves during the pandemic. (Social Media Today)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was ahead of its time in addressing the perennial problem of work-life balance. And the real hero of the story might come as a surprise. (WBUR)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Every man is worth just so much as the things he busies himself with.” — Marcus Aurelius, c. 175
🎧 The Remote Work Life podcast was created to help you thrive as a remote worker and stay connected with what's current. You’ll hear a mix of interviews and tips from recognized remote CEOs and mission-driven thought leaders so you can figure out what it takes to build a meaningful career. Digital marketer, family man and host Alex Wilson-Campbell will share all he’s learned about remote over the last 10 years.
📖 Unvarnished: A Gimlet-Eyed Look at Life Behind the Bar goes behind the scenes of The Varnish, the first important craft cocktail bar in Los Angeles, by its founder Eric Alperin and fellow bartender and veteran writer Deborah Stoll. The foundation of The Varnish’s success was attention to hospitality and an abiding belief in the nobility of service. The authors push back against the prevailing notion that working in the service industry is something people do because they failed at another career.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.