This morning I flew into the office just in time to hear Anne saying, “Rob, this article is good, and we want it to be great. So, would you please do some editing to tighten it up; you have gone a little over the 500-word limit. Including an image is a good idea, and it would be great if would find one with a broader diversity of people represented.”
While the conversation concluded, Anne handed me the article to read. I read it, all 758 words of it. I didn’t think it was very good and the picture didn't add anything.
So, I asked her, “Why didn’t you just tell him that it wasn’t good enough, and he needed to do it over?”
Anne raised her eyebrows at me and then she explained, “I use my own rules when coaching for improvement; these rules were developed after years of delivering destructive feedback.
"Early in my career, I was taught to coach for improvement/give corrective feedback starting with three positive observations before addressing the need for improvement, then describe what needed to be improved and end with something positive.
“One day, we had consultants in to assess the effectiveness of our leadership team. A fellow by the name of Joseph was assigned to work with me, and he told me that my team said I never give praise, only criticism. Wow, I was astonished! And embarrassed! You have no idea how much time I invested over the years in finding three positive things to say!
“Joseph asked me to role-play a feedback scenario. So, for example in Rob’s case I might have said, ‘I appreciate that you got this article in before the deadline, the layout has eye appeal and you have addressed all the key points, but you have gone over the word limit, and the image does not contain the level of diversity required to comply with the brief you were given. I know you can do better.’
“Joseph explained that feedback delivered in that fashion (the way I had been taught) was generally referred to as a ‘sh*t sandwich’; the filling could make you sick.
“He also pointed out that the word but is a great eraser – everything said before but is erased, and the listener only remembers the filling, the sh*t that came after.
“In the role-play scenario (in which I delivered a ‘sh*t sandwich’), the three nice things I said, the praise I delivered, was erased. Rob would only remember the sh*t that came after the but: he went over the word limit, chose an inappropriate image for the article, and he failed to meet my expectations. Most likely he would go away feeling unwell/sick: unappreciated, devalued and discouraged.
“Since then, I have modified my approach to coaching for correction, in four important ways:
1. I only use but strategically, when I intend to erase what came before,
2. I restate our goal to do great work,
3. I offer corrective direction and desired improvements.
4. Praise is saved for a separate conversation.
“When you heard me speaking to Rob, a few minutes ago, I followed my own rules when coaching for improvement:
a. Did not use the word but,
b. Reminded him that we want to do great work, and
c. Provided specific direction for improvement.
“When Rob delivers the great article I am looking for, I will praise him for:
his great, 500-word article,
its eye appeal,
choosing an image that reflects the diversity of the audience,
delivering it ahead of the deadline, so there was time to make it great!
"I will also tell him I am proud to have him on the team and that I will look for other assignments where he can apply his skills.
“By limiting the conversation to praise only, there is a much higher likelihood that the recipient will absorb it, feel recognized, know that they are appreciated and feel encouraged to continue to deliver great work!”
“Was it hard for you to stop saying but?” I wondered out loud.
Anne smiled as she replied, “Yes, controlling when and how I use it was hard, but the discipline has been so worth the effort!”
Notice how she used the word but strategically – what I will remember is that the discipline to stop saying but, in these instances, has been very worthwhile! No more sh*t sandwiches!