Supervisory Leadership

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How do you create constructive feedback in the workplace?

During World War II, General Douglas MacArthur was asked by a subordinate why he insisted on exposing himself to danger by standing outside the bunker during an air raid. MacArthur said: “If I do it, the generals do it. And if the generals do it the colonels do it. If the colonels do it the captains do it …” The first rule for having helpful conversation in the workplace is that the boss has to set the example.

That example needs to include both listening to constructive criticism without killing the messenger, and giving that kind of criticism in a way that subordinates concentrate on changing behavior, not how they were treated. Constructive candor in the workplace is the basis for meaningful and helpful conversations about performance. The boss needs to learn a few simple techniques to help make those conversations with subordinates more effective.

First, the boss needs to learn that what we talk about is behavior, what people say and do. We do not talk about attitude. We do not motivate. We talk about behavior and how it might change.

Next, the boss needs to learn that we talk about behavior in a particular way. We describe behavior in a non-judgmental way, with as few adjectives as possible. That's so everyone knows what we're talking about. Then we describe the impact of the behavior in both logical an emotional terms. That's so everyone knows why discussing a particular behavior is important.

Once the boss has described behavior and impacts, he or she needs to sit quietly and let the subordinate have a say. That's necessary to verify the situation, establish the facts and involve the subordinate in the conversation.

After that, boss and subordinate need to work out an agreement about what will change and when and how the parties will know it's changed. There are lots of communications tools that can be useful here, such as Active Listening.


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