Simon says, “Give people clear, frequent, and accurate feedback.”
This unusually complex strategy starts with being as quick to tell people what they have done right as you are to tell them what they have done wrong. That does not sound difficult, does it? What if the order is reversed, though? Be as quick to tell people what they have done wrong as you are to tell them what they have done right. Now it sounds odd. It seems like Simon is suggesting equal attention needs to be given to both “what’s right” and “what’s wrong.” There you go. That is exactly the point.
It is not necessary to go into a lot of detail about leaders who only relate to team members in terms of problems and things they have done wrong. They also point fingers and know every problem is someone else’s fault. Their major activity is finding someone, anyone to criticize or blame. You are also well-aware of leaders who appropriately point out problems but seldom point out good work. It is not unusual to see the compliment/criticism balance favoring criticism. Simon certainly recommends leaders carefully attend to keeping the balance in balance.
For Simon, finding and keeping the balance is based on taking it for granted people are trying to do a good job. They do not intentionally screw things up, make mistakes, or perform below their abilities. Even more, most everyone on the team consciously and intentionally gives the little extra moving good work into the excellent category. Their commitment to excellence is a major reason why they are on the team; and excellence is what you get from them, the first time, on time, every time.
Here is the rub. With highly successful teams, the expectation is team members perform at the excellent level every time, no exceptions, no excuses. People are extraordinarily good at what they do. With teams like this, compliments and praise are plentiful and lavish. Even when people are not being complimented directly, they receive indirect compliments and praise from customers and others in the external environment. They are among the best and they know it. It helps to attend to direct praise and acknowledgment of superior performance; but this is merely an extra quality touch in an already self-reinforcing environment. If a team is not doing well, compliments and praise will not, by themselves, help much. If it is doing well, additional praise and compliments will not add much to its success.
The real issue here is criticism. Of course, Simon praises publicly and only criticizes in private. He also is very careful to assure his criticism is an exact fit with the problem or issue, not overdoing it or under doing it. Criticism, no matter how well it is managed, introduces a negative element into a fast-moving, stressful environment where people are already on edge and pushing themselves to their limits. The affect is the person who is criticized and those who are coincidentally in the immediate environment become apprehensive and less productive, at least for the moment. The point is criticism is always temporarily counterproductive. For this reason, Simon is quick to praise but very cautious when criticizing anyone, for any reason.
Clear, accurate, and frequent feedback is certainly important. Simon knows as well providing constructive and effective criticism is the most delicate area of the feedback balancing act. If this feedback is inappropriate or excessive, the person will overreact or withdraw and the outcome is often worse than the original problem. If criticism is not forthcoming when it is appropriate or is not focused enough, the problem or issue persists and likely will get worse. Getting criticism just right, the first time, on time, every time is critical for any leader and an essential ingredient of a winning team.
As if the challenge of getting criticism right, the first time, on time, every time were not enough by itself, there is an additional dimension further complicating the matter. The standards increase. Yesterday’s acceptable performance levels are under continuous review and may not be acceptable today. Team members who have performed adequately in the past may have the same quality of work criticized and judged unacceptable. They find they have shifted from valued team members to people who are marginal performers. At a minimum, the bar is constantly being raised and higher levels of performance are expected. The unavoidable but possible result is a member has to leave the team. If this happens, other members then become anxious about whether they might be next. Because of this anxiety, any criticism must be managed very carefully and judiciously.
The major implication of all of this is a successful leader must be a very good teacher. Further, all incidents or situations potentially leading to criticism must be redefined as teaching opportunities. As Simon puts it,
“Good leaders never criticize. It is just too dangerous. Instead, they know how and when to teach and are careful to never miss a teaching opportunity.”
The key here is in understanding the nature of the teaching opportunities. Simon is not referring to training needs prompted by team members’ needing skills they do not have or enhancements of existing skills. You know Simon values this type of training and it is normal and expected for all team members.
The most common prompt for these types of teaching opportunities stems from an inadequacy in work or work performance. The team member is just not up to the expected level in one or more areas. Dealing with this is fairly easy. Simply sit with the team member to discuss the inadequacies and to develop a mutually agreed on plan for correcting them. This may mean more training, more attention to detail, connecting with a mentor, or anything else getting the valued team member from here to there. Set specific dates for activities, for evaluation of progress, as well as for having the deficiency corrected. As you can see, it is simply another application of Simon’s usual problem solving strategy.
The more serious challenge comes when the team member either cannot or will not do what is expected or continues unacceptable behavior after having been warned. First, there must not be any delay. It is unfair to the member to put off confronting the issue. Further, avoiding doing what needs done gives the member the impression there is no problem. Do today’s business today, even if it is uncomfortable or potentially unpleasant. If you need additional incentive, the task will become even more uncomfortable and unpleasant if you postpone it till tomorrow.
When you do confront the issue, Simon has a suggestion. Say, “My problem is. . . . (Be quite specific.) You either will not or cannot do what I expect. If you can’t, we will talk about that. If you will not, there is nothing to discuss further. You cannot remain on the team. Is it can’t or won’t?” If the team member feels capable, develop a plan to correct the problem. If the member feels incapable, reassign the team member to other responsibilities, if possible. If the member has to leave the team, make the arrangements to do that, giving as much consideration to the individual’s needs and circumstances as you can. You are still dealing with a valued person, even though team membership is terminated. People in this situation are entitled to the same level of humanity and respectful treatment as they received while they were being recruited for the team. The PPS basics still apply every day, every time, with everyone, no exceptions, no excuses.