Menu Close

Feedback Can Be Dangerous

I certainly recommend that leaders carefully attend to keeping the balance in balance.

For a proactive leader, finding and keeping the balance is based on taking it for granted that people are trying to do a good job. They do not intentionally screw things up, make mistakes, or perform below their abilities. Even more, most everyone on the team consciously and intentionally gives the little extra that moves good work into the excellent category. Their commitment to excellence is a major reason why they are on the team, and excellence is what you get from them, the first time, on time, every time.

Here is the rub. With highly successful teams, the expectation is that team members perform at the excellent level every time, no exceptions, no excuses. People are extraordinarily good at what they do. With teams like this, compliments and praise are plentiful and lavish. Even when people are not being complimented directly, they receive indirect compliments and praise from customers and others in the external environment. They are among the best and they know it. It helps to attend to direct praise and acknowledgment of superior performance, but this is merely an extra quality touch in an already self-reinforcing environment. If a team is not doing well, compliments and praise will not, by themselves, help much. If it is doing well, additional praise and compliments will not add much to its success.

The real issue here is criticism. Of course, a proactive leader praises publicly and only criticizes in private. He also is very careful to assure his criticism is an exact fit with the problem or issue, not overdoing it or under doing it. Criticism, no matter how well it is managed, introduces a negative element into a fast-moving, stressful environment where people are already on edge and pushing themselves to their limits. The affect is the person who is criticized and those who are coincidentally in the immediate environment become apprehensive and less productive, at least for the moment.

The point is that criticism is always temporarily counterproductive. For this reason, a proactive leader is quick to praise but very cautious when criticizing anyone, for any reason.

Clear, accurate, and frequent feedback is certainly important.

a proactive leader knows as well that providing constructive and effective criticism is the most delicate area of the feedback balancing act. If this feedback is inappropriate or excessive, the person will overreact or withdraw and the outcome is often worse than the original problem. If criticism is not forthcoming when it is appropriate or is not focused enough, the problem or issue persists and likely will get worse. Getting criticism just right, the first time, on time, every time is critical for any leader and an essential ingredient of a winning team.

As if the challenge of getting criticism right, the first time, on time, every time were not enough by itself, there is an additional dimension further complicating the matter. The standards increase. Yesterday’s acceptable performance levels are under continuous review and may not be acceptable today. Team members who have performed adequately in the past may have the same quality of work criticized and judged unacceptable. They find they have shifted from valued team members to people who are marginal performers. At a minimum, the bar is constantly being raised and higher levels of performance are expected. The unavoidable but possible result is that a member has to leave the team. If this happens, other members then become anxious about whether they might be next. Because of this anxiety, any criticism must be managed very carefully and judiciously.

The major implication of all of this is that a successful leader must be a very good teacher. Further, all incidents or situations potentially leading to criticism must be redefined as teaching opportunities.