Six years ago, I wrote an article on how to give feedback. It was narrowly focused on how the brain processes criticism. As an executive coach, I'm frequently asked for the best way to give constructive feedback and I'm still stunned at how many people try to insert negative comments into a "sandwich" with two positive-sounding bread slices on either side. Even though we have all been on the receiving end of such a tactic and therefore probably know it doesn't feel good and isn't motivating, many of us still do it and wonder why we get friction and resistance to our generous offers of help.
After reading the research from many world-class business thinkers, extensive personal training in neuro-strategies, and 30 years leading several companies, I'd have to be in a deep sleep not to pick up a few tips on human behavior. If your role includes helping people change their behavior and you want to be more effective and encounter less friction, I hope you find some useful distinctions here.
As I was pulling my notes together for this article, I came across Forbes.com contributor, Dede Henley's warm-off-the-press article on this very topic as it applies to millennials. No matter how old the subject, there is always room for fresh perspective. Millennials' nearly continuous social interaction puts them in a different category than earlier generations. They have developed and evolved certain norms of interaction that are foreign to non-digital natives. As leaders adapt to the unique managerial challenges that many (though certainly not all) in this younger group present, the lessons learned will bring them more success with other generations as well. What works for millennials will work for others, but the reverse is not necessarily true, as any frustrated boomer knows.
I revised the original article to keep up with new research, to add fresh experience, and most importantly to share the topic with a wider audience than my necessarily finite list of clients. I hope you find it useful. Please send me your feedback, which I will graciously accept whether you do so in a manner consistent with the use of the tools presented here or not!
What if you ordered a baloney sandwich and just as you were being served, both slices of bread were swiped away leaving only the inside part? You might feel annoyed and hungry for something better than just a pile of baloney. When coaching your staff, feedback is an important tool. However, many often use the same idea as the sandwich. They give criticism but sandwich it between two pieces of positive encouragement, thinking that approach will somehow soften the blow of the criticism. It's sometimes referred to as the "criticism sandwich!"
Research has shown that this approach is surprisingly ineffective for several reasons. Nobody remembers anything you said before the criticism and no one believes your positive comments that follow the negative ones. That leaves them with only a stack of baloney and a bad taste in their mouth.
This practice was studied by Clifford Nass and described in his book, The Man Who Lied to His Computer. The brain goes into full alert when hearing negative criticism and enters a state called “retroactive interference” which results in nearly total memory loss of anything said prior to hearing the criticism. It might take minutes, hours or even a couple days for the memory to disappear, but your brain simply forgets the words of praise that precede criticism. If asked later if there was any positive feedback in the discussion, one simply can’t remember.
But another interesting phenomenon occurs when giving criticism. In that same heightened alert state, one also experiences a new sense of awareness that Nass calls “proactive enhancement.” You’ve got their attention, so now they are ready to listen and absorb whatever you say next. This is where managers miss an opportunity. Most managers provide what they regard as a soft landing by giving positive-sounding generalities when the person they are coaching is open to hearing real and specific reinforcement. In our heightened state of awareness, it's hard not to notice the useless generalities as mere padding. Thus in our effort to be positive, we simply annoy. Haven't we always known that the two pieces of bread are nutritionally deficient? Turns out they don't work in conversation either.
Henley's article talks about feedback in relation to millennials. They don't like the typical workplace feedback because it doesn't align with social media norms. When they post a picture of their lunch, for example, feedback is immediate and positive. "Delish! Salivating for pomegranates! Where are you?," they write. Compare that with, "I'm not getting the output from you that I was hoping for, Stanley." They will tune you out because in their view, you don't get it and you don't understand them. Managers, of course, are responsible for the output of their teams, so it's important that they "get it" if they want to have an impact.
Perhaps the millennials are onto something important about the human brain. Reading about the research on criticism above, one can't help but notice that our reactions are more intense than we might have expected. Our brain literally sheds information it only recently processed, and then it goes into a heightened state. Those are big shifts.
Our brains treat feedback as a threat. Threats put us into a state of fight or flight, or what Daniel Goleman calls an "amygdala hijack" in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The amygdala is that small part of the brain just above the spinal cord, often called the "lizard brain," that takes over in stressful situations, pushing aside the involvement of your conscious mind. "Back off, I've got this," it says, adding, "You're too slow for this, and we're in trouble here."
Yes, the conscious mind is too slow, which would take a whole book to explain and thankfully, Daniel Kahneman already wrote it, Thinking Fast and Slow. When you ask the hero why she dove into shark-infested waters to save the drowning man, she says, "I don't know. I didn't have time to think. I just did it." Exactly. If we are meeting with a person whom we are trying to help, knowing what we now know, who would invite that person's amygdala to the conversation? How do we keep the conversation thoughtful and genuinely helpful, without inspiring an attack of mental re-wiring and selective amnesia.
Clearly, we need to improve on the sandwich-lizard-brain-retroactive-interference-help-me-skipper model we've been using for years, right? When coaching your sales force, the goal is improving sales effectiveness with honest, useful feedback. Criticism is important if you want to improve a specific behavior, but effectiveness is a function of intent and delivery.
Positive comments are still an important way to encourage the behaviors that are already working. Let's talk about how to express what you need to change in a way that will be heard, and not just by millennials, but by anyone. When you want to see positive behavior changes, master the following five steps and instead of charging into a wall of resistance, you'll be basking in the glory of frictionless feedback:
The Five Steps to Frictionless Feedback
1. Provide Coaching, Not Feedback
The problem with feedback lies in its context. Hey, can I give you some feedback? See how that feels? For some, it brings pangs to the stomach, even when they are just words on this page that couldn't possibly pertain to you. Feedback has a corrective connotation and is often associated with the dreaded annual review. Reviews seldom improve results and usually only serve to provide cover for postponed drama.
Coaching, on the other hand, is more of a process that by it's nature is collaborative, mutual, and centered on continuous improvement. And for all of millennials dread of feedback, they love the idea of always improving. Coaching, done well, is set up as a process; it's a regular and expected part of the relationship. The purpose is understood. There's always a lesson or takeaway. It gives one a sense that the manager is investing in their success. One of the most informative articles on coaching salespeople that I have read comes from my colleague and world-leading sales master and Hall-of-Famer, Dave Kurlan. Sales managers who want to get this right could become absorbed for days in the information and corresponding links found in his article.
When changing a behavior is important, shifting away from providing feedback and moving toward an environment of coaching will get better results, especially if the intent is a positive and nurturing environment rather than just getting results. Consider adding these components to your coaching when you notice a behavior that needs to change:
2. Set the Tone
Your tone provides the signal for how you feel about someone. In Dede Henley's article mentioned earlier, she writes that it's helpful to ask permission. I learned from neuro-strategist, Steve Linder, several years ago to say, "Do I have permission to coach?" Henley suggests saying, "I have a perspective I would like to share. Would you be willing to hear it?" I like that, too. What's important is that you are priming them to listen and making them a collaborator in the process.
My colleague and leading sales expert, Chris Mott, in this article, provides excellent advice on how to frame the discussion for minimal pushback. He makes the excellent point that setting up the relationship at the outset to include regular feedback minimizes resistance later. When it's time to provide feedback, first ask permission, then tell a story. He writes: “I was hoping we could take advantage of our agreement to openly discuss areas for improvement. Do you mind if I share something with you?” Then tell a story they can relate to without making them the protagonist: “I know we have been under a lot of pressure lately. My experience is when I react to the pressure, I lose sight of the big picture. This can make me less aware of how others perceive me even when I’m trying to do the right thing.”
3. Clear Intention
It's critical that they understand your intent. Have you noticed that it often doesn't matter if the evidence you shared with someone is irrefutable, or that what someone said made tons of sense, because your conversational "adversary" seems only to care about the source. "Who said we all want to feel good about ourselves? Oh that guy from the TV show? I don't trust anything he says!" Knowing the source of the information becomes a shortcut to understanding the intent, and the intent determines whether the information will be absorbed and used to change our thinking or our behavior. Intent makes it easier to attach meaning to what you are saying; we don't know how to feel about something until we assign a meaning to it.
If you do not already have a coaching channel established that's an expected part of your relationship (see Chris Mott's article), make sure they know why you are asking to coach. "I'd like to help because I want to see you become wildly successful." This works because it presupposes two things: A) they can become wildly successful, and B) you believe they can, so your criticism can be seen in that context. In sales management, coaching is where today's top managers spend half of their time. If this channel of communication isn't well established with all of your people, it's much more challenging to get the results you seek.
4. Stick to Behaviors
Is the person the problem or is it just their behaviors? If we stick to the behaviors, then it's not about who they are anymore. We also have to be careful not to generalize or distort. "You always do that," appears to address a behavior but it is dispiriting because if gives them no credit for the times that they haven't "done that," and doesn't acknowledge that you are even aware of those times.
When we stick to specific instances of specific behaviors in which they have control, it helps us put the problem in the proper context not only for them, but for ourselves. We can still be grateful for this person and for who they are, while remaining firm that the behavior needs to change as it relates to the task. Be very specific. "I noticed you didn't push back when your prospect said he wanted to think it over. Understanding why they want to think it over might tell us what we missed in our discussion." This counts for positive comments as well. "I love how you asked her questions based on what she just said instead of from some pre-determined list. That really made her feel heard."
5. Make It Actionable
Coaching works better when it includes the recipe for improvement. Always provide actionable steps alongside the coaching so that they understand how to do it even better the next time. An ideal coaching session always ends with their lesson learned or top takeaway.
One of the most useful coaching tools is role playing. In a sales environment, one of the action steps usually includes having a conversation that covers a specific topic, or readdresses an area that might have been missed the first time around. Describing the topic is helpful to a point. Role playing it embeds it in our heads. One can hear what it will sound like coming from them and give them practice so that the real conversation isn't the first time they are saying.
Not role playing is like getting a piano lesson where the teacher hands you the music and describes the score to you without letting you play it for them. Imagine a rock band performance where the first time you played the piece was at the concert. What might the band leader say afterward, "I don't get it. We went over what this piece should sound like many times. Remember when I said to play softer in the eighth measure. Jeez you guys!" Role playing isn't always comfortable at first, but managers who lead the way into their own discomfort set an example for their people who are committed to improving.
What's important is that the person you are helping has a clear idea of what to do differently. Your action plan should include steps they can perform applying behaviors in which they have control.
Eliminating feedback friction and resistance starts with a mindset and it takes practice. Set up the relationship from the outset to move toward a coaching culture. If the relationship is several years old, frame it as a reset and ask for their help so you can move toward increasing their skills and your own, and eliminate weaknesses, non-supportive beliefs and other head trash so they can achieve their goals more quickly.
I hope you found these tools helpful in the context of your leadership role and especially helpful for anyone with direct reports. Unless you have perfect self-winding people who exceed quota every quarter without any input from you, then you have faced the challenges described above, whether they were millennials or any other category you care to describe. Have you made coaching a part of your culture? Do your people regularly come to you for help? Do you personally seek advice and feedback in your own organization? When it’s time to serve feedback to your staff, are you a critic or a coach? What steps do you take to make sure your people are served with a balanced and useful diet of advice and coaching or are they often left with a pile of baloney? (No offense to baloney lovers.)
Dennis Connelly is Senior Sales Strategist at Kurlan & Associates and 30-year owner and co-founder of multiple businesses in manufacturing, chemical technology, building materials, importing, and contracting. He now helps executives in dozens of industries from media to technology, from manufacturing to professional services, to remove obstacles to growth and unleash massive hidden sales potential.
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Photo Credit: Copyright Denis Ismagilov (123RF)