How Often Should I Give Feedback?

[this is  a summer report series repost]

My Smart House Cat

Sometimes our cat thinks she’s a dog. I believe this because when we house-trained our dog, we hung bells from the back door knob and he learned to ring them with his nose when he needed to go out. Persephone (my daughter named the cat for the Queen of the Underworld, which says more about my daughter than the cat, but not by much) observed this for a while, and then started to ring the bells herself.

I dutifully ran to the back door and let her out before realizing what I’d done. In that instant I’d trained the cat to expect that when she rang the bells somebody would open the door for her. Action and reward.

It’s been cold here in Calgary for a while, so even when we know Persephone is just checking to make sure the weather is the same out the back door as it was out the front just five minutes ago, she’s learned to be quite persistent. Eventually somebody will come along and let her out. Listening to the jangling bells is too annoying. Behaviour and reinforcement. The dog passed away about six weeks ago. We really could take the bells down, but I just don’t have the heart.

Many Fat Happy Monkeys

Training animals and giving feedback have some things in common. No, people aren’t cats, and humans aren’t monkeys. Yet there’s something to learn here. If you want to train a monkey to ride a skateboard, you don’t slap it on the skateboard and then yell at it for not performing tricks. First you put the skateboard in the cage. The monkey doesn’t freak out at this new and strange object that’s invaded its space.* You give it a slice of peach when it stays calm when the skateboard appears.

Maybe the monkey moves towards the skateboard. Peach slice. Maybe then the monkey touches the skateboard. Peach. The monkey sits on the skateboard. Peach. The monkey allows the trainer to push the monkey. Peach. Pretty soon you have a fat, happy monkey doing kick-turns and axle stalls.

The Human Advantage

Giving feedback to people isn’t really much different. The biggest difference is that because if we use language properly we can accelerate the process. Every movement, behaviour, or action in the right direction gets noticed and praised. Immediately, specifically, and sincerely. Progress ensues. Many fat happy monkeys, er, staff.

So what happens when the monkey throws the skateboard at the trainer? Nothing. Any body language, tone of voice, or facial expression that gives away anger is a clue on how to control the trainer. Animal trainers know that reacting to bad behaviour (shouting, waving arms, angry faces) is only letting the animal know what they need to do to provoke you.

Again, people are not monkeys (at least most aren’t). Funny enough it works the same way with many people. Emotions leak through, and that affects how the message we’re trying to give is received. Even on a subconscious level. If you can give specific, sincere feedback and still smile, then go ahead and give the feedback. If you can’t smile, then wait until you can. Otherwise you risk doing more harm than good.

Your Actions

In the next week, look for opportunities to give positive, specific feedback (or just a thank-you even) for people who are moving in the right direction. When somebody is trying, they’re actually looking for approval and encouragement.  Even if you suspect they got lucky or did it accidentally, recognize and reward at as many opportunities as you get. Don’t hold out on the peaches!

I wonder what it would take to get the cat on a skateboard?

Previous Blogs on Feedback:

Everybody Wants Feedback – having the courage to give feedback pays off for you, them, and the company
We Owe Ourselves Feedback
– how do you react when somebody gives you feedback?
Why Feedback Doesn’t Work

Train Yourself to Give Better Feedback
– start by practising this everyday for a week
Getting Better at Giving Feedback
– from their behaviour to your reaction and back again. Knowing what going on underneath the surface.

*I can’t remember where I read this example. If you know the source please let me know in the comments so I can give proper credit. Thanks.

Don’t Piss Off the Quartermaster


“There are two people in the unit you never want to piss off: the quartermaster and the pay-clerk. No beans, no bullets, and no cash for the bar.” — Sergeant B. L.

This can also be told as: “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, isn’t nice.” I’ve heard told as dating advice in that context, but it also has a leadership application.

The so-called “little people” have power. Yes, I’ve heard them called that, and it made me wonder what kind of person they are. The bottom line is that you depend on everybody on your team to get the the job done. If people who work with or for you perceive a sense of entitlement, privilege, or power over will do two things for you:

  • You’ll have people working with or for you that don’t have anywhere else to go, so they have to put up with your shit. If you treat people poorly, you’ll have poor staff.
  • You’ll get your coffee spit in, if you can get a coffee. Or your project will get sabotaged, you’ll only get what you can force out of people. If that’s your jam then go ahead. Personally I don’ t have the energy to lead that way.

If your boss / client / supplier / peer has an executive administrator, then I strongly invite you to nurture an authentic relationship with them. He or she is your boss’s gatekeeper. He can make your job much harder if you give him reason to. Like, for example, mocking him for being a guy secretary.

Things you might want to consider when interacting with any administrator:

  • Respect their desk and supplies. Don’t borrow their stapler without asking. It’s their desk, treat it with the respect you would for anybody else’s. Their office supplies are not public property. Do you go through your boss’s desk looking for a three-hole punch? No? Don’t do it to her admin either.
  • Respect their personal space. Don’t lean on their desk and tower over them. At best it’s an obnoxious power play. That’s how they’ll perceive it, even if that wasn’t your intention. Remember that communication is what the listener does: if somebody thinks you’re being creepy, it’s because you’re doing something creepy.
  • Look them in the eye, not at their cleavage. This one is so obvious, but there are still men who do this. Yes, they can tell. Even when you think they’re not looking. If you’re lucky they’re just laughing at you behind your back because you think they can’t tell.
  • Be nice to them all the time, not only when you need something from them. You know when people are sucking up to you just because they need something from you. That means other people can tell when you’re doing it to them.
  • The best and fastest way to build a relationship with somebody is to learn their name. If it’s your first day, learn the boss’s secretary’s name, and as many of the other administrators as you can.
  • Be nice to all of them. They talk to each other. I’m not condoning gossip here but they do compare notes. Who’s good to work for, who isn’t, who’s an asshole. If you’re polite to one and not the other, you’re not polite.

Your boss’s administrator has tremendous influence. A good receptionist/administrator is worth their weight in gold. Treat them with respect and that’s what you’ll get in return.

On Being Nice to the Waiter (and Everybody Else) (All the Time)

pork and beansThere’s a saying that “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, isn’t nice.”

My first sergeant said it differently: “There are two people in the squadron you never want to piss off: the quartermaster and the pay-clerk. No beans, no bullets, and no way to pay your bar tab.”

That man had his priorities straight. 

He had a point: everybody is important. Everybody can and will contribute the company’s (squadron’s) success. We all depend on each other. We can’t do everything ourselves, so corporations (teams, squadrons) organize by task and specialities. With that comes the need to cooperate, collaborate, and communicate.

I’ve actually heard executives call employees in their company “little people”. Why is beyond me. Everybody on the payroll should add value to the company, and it should be clear how they do it. If they don’t it’s because the same executives haven’t designed their own organization properly.

It’s the “little people”, if you say hello to them in the hallway (better yet learn his or her name) who will let you into the building when you forget your swipe card, who will find a coffee for your client after hours, or who will help you get home when you’ve lost your wallet.

This happened to my father (losing his wallet) on his first business trip to Western Canada. No identification, no credit cards or gas money. It was the front desk clerk, whom he’d been pleasant to when he checked in, who helped him get home. Nice guys don’t finish last. They get things done because they’re nice.

They get things done when things go wrong because they’re always nice.

What Are You Communicating?

One of the more frequent issues facing organizations is around internal communication. Sometimes employees say they don’t know what’s going on despite great effort made at communicating, or the leader has a clear idea of where they want to go but nobody seems to be following.

Even worse is when the leadership thinks it’s doing a good job communicating (“Look, we have a newsletter!”), but the internal survey comes back with “lack of communication” written all over it. This is what I like to call failing the “Am I smoking crack?” check.

Good news: at least you’re checking. That puts you ahead of 90% of the companies out there.

What simple behaviors do leaders who communicate well engage in? Here’s a couple of things I’ve noticed.

  1. Listen  – Maybe your one-way communication to your organization isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s that you’re not listening to what they’re saying. People generally aren’t ready to listen until they feel they’ve been heard. Maybe they’re trying to tell you something important? What are you telling people when you listen to them.
  2. Have a Simple and Consistent Message– remember KISS? “Keep it Simple Stupid?” The “stupid” in this case is not the people you’re talking to. It’s you. If you think that a wordy, complicated, bland message  is going to engage people to action then you’re being stupid.If you’re going to ask people to listen to you at least do them the courtesy and have the courage to actually say something. Be bold, brave, and brief.What is your message?
  3. Link Purpose to Action– can you answer the “So What?” question? Does everybody in your organization know where they fit in? If they don’t know how what they do supports the company – what the company is trying to do and what their part is – then they tend to switch off.If you can’t draw a line between somebody’s role  in your company to the company’s larger vision, strategy, and goals, then why do they work for you again?
  4. See Every Interaction as an Opportunity – every interaction with all employees is an opportunity to communicate. Beginning at the hiring process, on-boarding, newsletters, celebrations, feedback, one-on-ones, coaching, how your company runs meetings, who you fire (or not), who you promote(or not), etc. All the simple things that outstanding managers do well.How does your company behave during a crisis? What does how often and how you communicate say about you and your company? Sometimes it’s a case of “your actions are so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying”.
  5. Forget E-Mail – notice how I didn’t mention e-mails (until now). If you think you’re communicating through e-mail you might want to have another think.  Talking a lot is also not communicating (see point 1. above).
How important do you think communication is in your current rôle? How much time do you think you spend communicating? How much time do you dedicate to “communicating” (and listening) in your daily schedule?

Why Feedback Doesn’t Work

When my daughter Nichole was in middle school she liked to play on her Nintendo DS when she should have been in bed. Surprisingly my yelling  – “Go to sleep! You have school tomorrow!” – didn’t make her go to sleep. She did get better at hiding it. Just like me at that age, except I was hiding a Heinlein  novel. The word “feedback” provokes a reaction in many people. We think of situations like “Step into my office and have a seat.”, or “We need to talk.” I would bet that just reading those words some felt their stomach drop or the hair on the back of their necks stand up.

Poorly Delivered Feedback Worsens Performance

Why does “feedback” provoke such a strong reaction? Because it’s usually done badly. What’s been inflicted on you, you don’t want to inflict on others. You like doing things the right way and you know that wasn’t it. Or you’ve given feedback and it hasn’t changed anything. Or you want your staff to like you and everybody to work together, and giving them an honest appraisal of their performance just makes you look like an a**hole. You may have experienced any or all these situations. . . . and you’d be right. Poorly delivered feedback w delivered in the wrong way and in the wrong context will just make things worse. Your staff will only learn to hide things better. Even insincere, unspecific but positive feedback will do more harm than good. Old-school managers will tell you to give two pats for every poke. The old “tell them something good, tell them what they need to fix, finish with something good.” In my uniformed days we called this a “sh*t sandwich”. Something unpleasant between two pieces of fluff. The good news will be long forgotten, and even resented, long after the sting of the negative lingers. But we also know that high performers need, crave, and demand feedback on their performance. Like high-performing athletes they need a coach. A third-party observer that can see things they can’t see to give them awareness they need. Somebody who has the skills to close the loop that allows them to excel.

How Do We Provide Good Feedback?

First, stop giving bad feedback. Bad feedback will usually have one or more of these characteristics:

  1. It’s insincere or unspecific – If you’re telling somebody that they’re doing a good job, but you can’t tell them why or give a specific example, then you’re just blowing smoke and they’ll know it. Stifle yourself.
  2. It’s a personal attack – if you are thinking the words “bad attitude”, or even worse say them, then you’re giving bad feedback. Even worse, being shouted at, growled at, or given feedback by somebody who’s clearly angry and upset won’t do anything except make things worse.
  3. There’s no plan for the future – if you give feedback that is sincere, specific, and based on reality, but you leave them without a clear idea of what they’re going to do about it, then you’re doing it wrong.
  4. It’s untimely – just like paper-training a puppy, the longer the gap between action and feedback, the less useful it is. Good feedback is as immediate as possible.
  5. It’s public – negative or corrective feedback is for consumption in private. Negative feedback given in public has only one effect: humiliation.

If the feedback you’re about to give meets any of these criteria, it’s bad feedback. Don’t do it. Stop doing it. Don’t do it again. You won’t go from tyrant to prince overnight, but you can at least stop being the tyrant.

Your Action

If you’re a manager who regularly gives feedback to her staff, then good for you. For one week, keep track of how often you give feedback, and whether it’s positive or negative. What’s your ratio after five days? Do you give more negative than positive feedback? Other Reading:

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business. 

The Three Question Method – How to Create Compelling Presentations

The “three question” approach is a great way to get out from the usual wall of slides that separates you from your audience. It gets you thinking about what your audience wants – and who doesn’t love a presentation that revolves around themselves?

I suggested this method of creating compelling presentations to one of my clients, which he’s used to good effect in front of a lunch of leasing agents.

You might also be interested in:
How To Make Your Presentation Better: using stories and turning points
Keeping It Simple for PowerPoint Slides: get focus by using the 10/20/30 rule
Perfect Your Presentations: a trick for getting out from behind your slides. Who hasn’t had a slide go missing?