Ask any good trial lawyer, and they will tell you it’s what doesn’t get said in a trial that often has the biggest impact on the outcome. The same is true when giving feedback to team members.
Because no message has a defined meaning, team members are free to interpret its value in any way they would like. Helpful, constructive, insightful, and actionable interpretations are what leaders are shooting for.
Too often, however, people interpret feedback as impractical, pointless, senseless, or insulting. These interpretations, much to the chagrin of the leader, have the potential to create resistance and pushback.
Without meaning to, leaders can inadvertently step on a landmine and insult or offend others. When slighted, team members often defend themselves by lashing out or seething until later.
Almost any time a leader offers feedback and is met with a wildly unexpected reaction, they have likely crossed the insult line.
That’s why the best leaders aggressively edit their feedback and attempt to eliminate criticisms that lack specificity. Negative comments that are viewed as lacking practicality are typically viewed as inflammatory and aggressive. Leaders often make such comments mindlessly, without even thinking about their impact.
“This seems like a pattern with you.”
“This is lousy work.”
“I’m at a loss to understand your performance.”
“You need to dramatically improve.”
“I can’t imagine what has gotten into you.”
“Here we are again.”
“I can’t believe that was your decision.”
“I’m not sure where to begin.”
“What were you thinking?”
Comments like these and others may be cathartic, but they lack the utility to be acted on. As such, they become landmines in the field of conversation between the parties.
To prevent the kinds of interpretation that undermine a productive feedback discussion, the best leaders eliminate any negative comments that lack clear action to move forward.
By attaching specificity and practicality to any criticism, the effective leader encourages a more positive reception. Eliminating any statement that might be seen as insulting because it can’t be acted on is good practice. Sometimes, it’s what doesn’t get said when giving feedback that matters most.
“What were you thinking?” will always be interpreted as having disdain.
If what you really mean is... "Can you review your decision making with me on this one?"
...then you can't say it the first way.
Parents might be hearing some of these phrases sounding too familiar as well.