Tag Archives: Feedback

Constructive Criticism and Feedback Sandwiches with Bruce Springsteen

Let me give you a hypothetical situation. An employee comes into your office with a performance issue. You a) Boost his confidence so he has the self-esteem to do better in the future or b) Provide a gentle critique. OR, if these routes don’t work for you, maybe you need option c) Be more like Bruce Springsteen.

When Springsteen’s legendary saxophone player Clarence Clemons died, Bruce gave Clemons’ nephew Jake the opportunity to audition for the E Street Band. Jake was dreadfully close to blowing the opportunity. First, he was an hour late for the tryout. Then when he finally arrived, Jake told Springsteen that he only “sort of” knew the songs. Springsteen’s response is a lesson for any leader presenting constructive feedback.

Let me get this straight. You are coming to audition for Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons’ seat in the E Street Band, which is not a job, by the way, but a sacred f–king position, and you are going to play Clarence’s most famous solos for Bruce Springsteen [referencing himself in the third person], the man who stood beside him for forty years, who created those solos with him, and you’re gonna ‘sort of’ know them? Where … do … you … think … you … are? If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your S–T DOWN COLD! You embarrass yourself and waste my precious time.”

When Jake walked out, he knew exactly what he did wrong. There was no ambiguity or uncertainty. That’s the problem with many performance discussions today. We are so concerned with being nice and politically correct,  we lose the benefits of frank criticism.

Springsteen did not personally insult Jake or say anything out of line. He simply made it clear that 1) this job matters, 2) preparation is a requirement, and 3) Bruce is the Boss! That’s not to say we need to deliver the message exactly like Springsteen, but it’s a step closer to enacting real change. If Springsteen’s approach does not mesh with your style, consider this easy-to-implement method, the Feedback Sandwich.

With a Feedback Sandwich, also called Positive-Improvement-Positive (PIP), criticism is broken into three segments:

  1. Start by focusing on strengths
  2. Then provide the criticism
  3. Lastly, describe the positive results that can be expected when the criticism is acted upon

Beginning with a positive statement lets the receiver know you are on her side and you are not there to attack her. It lowers defenses and is more likely to ensure they are receptive when the criticism begins. And by ending on a positive tone, the employee leaves on a high note, knowing the potential advantages and consequences.

The Feedback Sandwich is a little softer than what Springsteen said (he skipped the first segment), but he did master segment two and segment three was covered when Springsteen ended the disastrous incident with the opportunity for one more audition. This time, Jake arrived early, thoroughly learned the material, and got the job. Hopefully you’re next encounter will result in the same happy ending.

James Corden and the Three Ways to Be a Larger-Than-Life Leader

james-cordenWhen people think about the “ultimate leader,” there is a tendency to consider the larger-than-life individuals who invigorate a room with their charisma, omnipotence, and swagger. While these people exist, they are extremely uncommon. Many managers try to emulate these characteristics only to find that they are unable to sustain the energy required to constantly be “on.” That’s why I like the distinction made by James Corden.

In a recent interview with James Corden, the Tony award winning host of The Late Late Show, he discussed his theory that there are two categories of actors. As he describes it:

There are two types of actors—aliens and humans. And neither is better. Genuinely, there is no better. We just watch them in different ways. So your aliens are Daniel Day Lewis, Mark Rylance, Ray Fiennes where you look and say, ‘I don’t know how they are doing that, that’s amazing.’ You look at them on a pedestal and go, ‘this is astonishing to me. I don’t know how they are doing that.’ And then there are actors where whoever they are playing and whatever they’re doing, are representing us, the audience. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example of someone who is astonishing and amazing and yet finds a humanity which is always representing you.

You can watch Mark Rylance or Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet and then you can watch one of my favorite actors in the world, Simon Russell Beale, with the text and one you are watching saying, ‘I don’t know how this is happening’ and the other you’re going, ‘whoa, that’s me up there.’

Aliens and humans. That is how we classify ourselves. In the leadership realm, aliens include such luminary favorites as tech maven Elon Musk, sports legend Phil Jackson, media icon Oprah Winfrey, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Mark Cuban. The rest of us are humans.

There is nothing wrong with being a human. As Corden said, these are the people who we can see in ourselves. There may not be much hero worship, but their draw is in their relatability. “Human” leaders inspire because they can connect on a personal level. They are less intimidating, more approachable, and more replicable.

There are plenty of humans who would like to become aliens. Unfortunately, the ways aliens practice leadership are aspirational, yet ultimately unattainable. There’s no harm in trying (depending on your level of authenticity), however a more realistic goal is to incorporate their habits in a seamless, natural manner that matches your style and the culture of your organization. Try a few of these tips:

Aliens are vision-oriented. An alien leader is renowned for their focus in a particular area. They have a clear, uncompromising vision and use it to set expectations for their team. With this understanding, employees are largely empowered to complete initiatives on their own. The leader remains involved to the degree needed and, so long as the vision remains intact, they can cede control knowing that the direction of the organization is in good hands.

Aliens innovate. Those who have risen to the alien-level of leadership did so by transcending the status quo. They are obsessed with finding new, inventive solutions and surround themselves with self-motivated people who are also willing to take bold risks.

To be more alien, you must increase your team’s threshold for taking chances. While your inner monologue may be conservative, to build a culture of creativity, others need to feel free to take calculated risks without fear of reprisal. To demonstrate how to fail, admit your failed attempts, including what you learned and how you will avoid making the mistakes next time. When someone else fails, use it as an opportunity to laud their risk taking. And, if you are feeling especially generous, incentivize failed attempts to motivate others to make their own ambitious attempts.

Aliens are involved. Whether they are interacting with employees, investors, or vendors, alien leaders are engaged and hands-on. They seek chances to network and are committed to learn as much as they can from others. Aliens also prioritize development opportunities where they can coach, mentor, and provide feedback. They handpick protégés and remain acutely aware of their responsibilities, challenges, and progress.

Attaining an alien’s level of involvement is a practice that all leaders (humans included) can easily grasp. Carve out time in each day to remain connected. Regular contact with employees positions you to be in-tune with the culture, the personalities, and the quality of work. You will also be more aware of the decisions being made and you’ll be able to enforce accountability in real time.

If you are torn between whether you’re an alien or human, just assume you fall in the later camp. After all, an alien is probably too removed to even consider this question. Once this reality sets in, it’s time to elevate the leadership of your mere humanness through alien-approved best practices. Set your vision, embrace innovation, and get involved. This may feel foreign at first, but by creating these preconditions for trust (a great term from HBR’s Sydney Finkelstein), you never know who will look to you as an alien.

J.J. Abrams on Establishing Boundaries

jj-abramsI recently witnessed a manager delegating work without any apparent limits or parameters. At first glance, this seemed liberating. The employee had total freedom to complete the task as she saw fit. Then she came back in the manager’s office for clarification, and back again, and again.

The next day, when I asked her about the experience, she stated all she wanted was a little direction. The manager had a different take; he was trying not to stifle her creativity and, per his ideology, “I hired her because she’s a pro. I shouldn’t have to spoon feed her.” So the question becomes, how much guidance should you give when delegating an assignment? J.J. Abrams might have the answer.

Back in early 2000s’, esteemed director, producer, and screenwriter J.J. Abrams was approached by a network to develop a new show. By this point in his career, Abrams had an impressive litany of successes— Armageddon, Alias, Felicity, Regarding Henry, etc. Regardless, he was not given free rein to present whatever was on his mind… and he prefers it this way. As he told Wired magazine,

I find that I am most happy when I have boundaries. With Lost, when ABC chairman Lloyd Braun called to say he wanted me to come up with a show about people who survive a plane crash, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I will come up with that,’ and I did—very, very quickly. What was great was he had given me a very specific assignment. So when I called him back and told him my thoughts, they were far weirder than what he would have ever expected. He was basically thinking about doing a kind of castaway show. But the constraint he imposed allowed the weirdness to kind of feel like fertile ground. Weirdness within limits, you know? If it had been un-limited—if he had called and said, come up with a weird show—I would have thought, I don’t know! What does that even mean?

“Weirdness within limits.” That might be my new delegation mantra. To provide these limits, leaders must be adept at delegation. This is more than handing off the tasks you don’t want to do. True delegation is an opportunity to build competences, experiment with new techniques, and grow confidence. When delegating, consider the following:

  • Provide context for the project. Explain why it matters, the impact it will have, and how it fits into the larger scheme.
  • Be specific. Your ultimate objective should not be a guessing game. Provide clear purpose for the initiative.
  • Resist the urge to micromanage. If you’re going to allow for freedom of expression, step back so they can express the freedom.
  • Offer focused feedback. If they are getting it wrong, that means they need more of your insight to guide them.
  • Impart positive support. When the project’s done, don’t be stingy with the compliments.

If established genius J.J. Abrams works best with boundaries, why shouldn’t we provide the same consideration to those on our team? You don’t need to present a detailed blueprint, but carte blanche doesn’t work either. With a little direction, you can save a lot of time and frustration, plus you’ll end up with an all-around better product.

Tarzan on the Need for Autonomy

tarzanWhenever I watch a Tarzan movie or read one of the many books, there is always a part of me that wonders why the antagonist doesn’t just leave Tarzan alone. They kidnap Jane, harass his familial gorillas, and generally taunt Tarzan until he has no choice but to avenge their wrongdoings. In the end, they flee the jungle in terror and Tarzan returns to his relatively autonomous existence.

Tarzan’s desire for autonomy is not unlike those of us and our employees. We have an innate need to experience the freedom to instigate our own actions. This includes feelings of self-initiation, self-inspiration, and self-regulation.

Contrary to what many believe, offering autonomy is not based upon job responsibilities or the employee’s stature within the hierarchy, but rather the ways in which the manager relates to employees and carries out supervisory functions. Managers who practice autonomy support sustain a culture of employee empowerment, high involvement, and creative engagement. They do this by acknowledging the employees’ perspective, removing obstacles associated with encumbering work rules, offering opportunities for choice, and encouraging self-initiation.

Extensive research has found that when managers embrace an autonomy-supportive climate, individuals on their team have more self-motivation, greater job satisfaction, and enhanced job performance. Additionally, one study found that these work-group members report a higher level of trust in the organization, and another study showed that when managers are perceived as autonomy-supportive, their staff have significantly less absenteeism and better overall physical and psychological well-being.

Before you open the floodgates, this is not an endorsement of a company culture where rogue loners are the standard. For all of Tarzan’s autonomy, he is fiercely loyal to his band of gorillas and Jane. That is why we need to rely on supercells.

Supercells are autonomous small teams within an organization. As Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, has said, teams should be no greater than the number of people who can be fed by two pizzas. Within the make up of these two-pizza teams are a cross-function of employees from different departments, with different skills, and from different levels of the organization.

What makes the supercell unique is that the team is self-managed. They have the autonomy to determine how they will achieve their goals. There is no designated group leader, just an end-goal and the freedom to get it done. Since the team is so small, there is a nimbleness that allows them to make faster decisions, pivot without warning, and remain in harmony.

To create a culture of autonomous supercells, consider the following:

Align. According to author Henrik Kniberg, forming an effective, autonomous supercell involves a high degree of alignment with the organization’s vision, mission, values, and priorities. To remain aligned, it falls on you, the leader, to communicate what problems need to be solved, changes within the company and industry, available resources, and why the end-goal matters. Since you will have multiple supercells, you must also ensure that they are sharing information.

Provide transparency. Alignment involves knowledge and autonomy relies on people having access to that knowledge. Share information about key metrics, why and how decisions have been made, and real-time changes. Provide updates as available and be transparent with your feedback. We must trust that they won’t abuse this privilege and they must trust that we are being forthcoming.

Hire smart. Your number one leadership priority should be hiring the right people to be on your team. A highly autonomous culture relies on people who are self-directed and able to work collaboratively. When interviewing, concentrate on interpersonal skills, alignment with the organization, and team-oriented focus.

Manage progress. In an autonomous workplace, your job is to help those on your team make progress. Day-to-day responsibilities include keeping the team focused and redirecting as needed. Provide strategic direction, remind them of the purpose, help to prioritize, and encourage progress.

Want to be king of the [workplace] jungle? Integrate autonomy into your culture. If you do, your team will become more dynamic, engaged, and adept. If you don’t, then you just became the villain in a Tarzan movie.