This one’s for the execs in the crowd. But EA’s, feel free to read, pass along to your exec, and give me YOUR feedback re your favorite method of receiving feedback.
Bossman waves me over. He doesn’t look pleased. “This message from [an investor] was misfiled as an FYI, but it has an action item attached to it since I need to put him in touch with [our senior architect].” “Ah yes, I see that now. Sorry about that.” “It’s really critical that I see messages like this right away. Anything having to do with investors should default to the Action folder.” “Got it. I’ll make a new category on the Action Folder Summary for ‘Fundraising: Other’.”
This is a pretty typical interaction between Bossman and myself. Bossman is what you might call a direct communicator. He doesn’t sugarcoat his comments, and he wastes no time in letting me know when something is not to his liking.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A lot of execs have a hard time giving negative feedback when their EA makes a mistake. They think it’s “mean,” or that it will unnecessarily stress their EA out. I’m here to tell you why that’s wrong.
In the wake of a mistake
When a person makes an error of any significance, either they are poignantly aware of it, or completely unaware of it.
If they’re unaware, then you’re certainly not doing them any favors by not pointing it out. Chances are the consequences of that error will come back to bite them later. And even if it doesn’t, if they don’t know it’s an error they’re highly likely to take the same action again, which is no good for anyone.
If they are aware, then failing to mention it actually causes them more stress. Think about it: if you make an error, and nobody mentions it, you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Did they notice? What’s going to happen to me when they do?
That kind of worry is not only detrimental to one’s mental health, it is a productivity suck. It’s pretty hard to focus on your work when you’re constantly stewing about your screwup and bracing yourself for the worst.
If, on the other hand, you address the issue with immediate, direct feedback, that kind of destructive distraction is all but eliminated.
And there’s no rule that says you have to be unpleasant about it. Let’s look at some techniques you can use to soften the blow:
Whenever I make little careless errors (typos, etc.) which are clearly the result of simply going too fast and not paying close enough attention to what I’m doing, Bossman calls out my name in classic sitcom style. Think Ricky yelling “Luuuuucyyyyyy!” It simultaneously breaks the tension and reminds me to slow down and be more careful.
2. Offering Help
Even assistants need assistance. Instead of simply telling your EA what you’re unhappy about, try asking what s/he needs in order to get the job done right.
For example, when Bossman noticed me struggling with travel plans for a round-the-world trip (to China, Hong Kong, London, Germany, and back to Seattle), he took me aside and showed me a sample agenda his previous assistant had made for a similarly complicated trip. He also gave me permission to call in back-up in the form of a travel agent, which I happily did, and to very positive effect.
Admiration is magic.
No, seriously. It’s AMAZING. Try this experiment: for one week, start every single conversation that has any potential to become uncomfortable or difficult by admiring something about your interlocutor. Note the relative number of arguments you get in as compared to a typical week.
But admiration isn’t just useful for evaporating tension like raindrops on asphalt in August. It puts people in the right frame of mind to learn and grow.
Nobody wants to feel wrong or bad. People will fight those labels tooth and nail, regardless of accuracy. The moment you put someone into a defensive frame of mind, they are no longer open to learning anything from you. On the contrary, they are only interested in teaching YOU how you have misunderstood them and why they were justified in doing things the way they did.
If on the other hand you focus first on the ways in which they are still right and good, despite this particular faux pas, they will climb right on board with how to stay right and good in your estimation.
For example: Let’s say you notice a particularly egregious mathematical error on an expense report your EA has handed you for approval. You might say something like this:
“You know, I’m really impressed with how far you’ve come on the accounting stuff. I know it’s not your favorite part of the job, and I really appreciate the effort you’ve put in to improve. I know you would never cost us money on purpose, so I want you to look at this again. I have confidence that you can find the mistake yourself.”
That method is pretty well guaranteed to get a positive result.
But because I realize you don’t always have the time/energy to craft an eloquent, admiration-frontloaded response, we’ll move on to the obvious:
4. Just the facts
Sometimes the best response is just to tell it like it is.
In the example above, you see the error, you hand the expense report back. “This is incorrect,” you tell your EA, “please fix it.”
Despite what you may have been told, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. So long as you do it in a neutral tone, simply pointing out an error is unlikely to cause undue upset.
Beware, however, the verbally subtle but emotionally massive difference between the above and, “You did it wrong again.”
The former is focused on the error. The latter is focused on your EA.
5. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t
I sincerely believe that focus determines reality. Meaning that the more focus you put on something, the more solid and important it becomes in your world. So think about that the next time you confront your EA about something you’d like them to do differently: what do you want to make more real? The problem behavior you are observing, or the positive behavior you are not yet observing?
I challenge you to phrase things, as much as humanly possible, in the positive rather than the negative.
So that: “You forgot to ask what time zone they’re in,” becomes: “Remember to ask about time zones.” And “I don’t like the way these files are organized,” becomes, “I prefer files to be organized by date rather than alphabetically.”
Bonus points for general courtesies like “please” and “thank you.” We know you’re busy, but a little courtesy and gratitude goes a long way.
Oh, and P.S. everything in this post applies to relationships of all kinds. Start practicing at work, and then watch these techniques work their magic at home. You’re welcome. 😉