As a leader or influencer of any kind, it is inevitable that you will be called upon to provide feedback on other people’s performance, work, attitude, etc. This may be part of the formal responsibilities required of your position, such as handling annual reviews or solving HR issues. But whether this is true for you or not, if you are respected and good at what you do, you will eventually be asked for your opinions on the creative or business-related work others have done. And that feedback or opinion will not always be positive.
I myself have been asked countless times to critique or provide feedback to songwriters and musicians, new authors or bloggers, web and graphic designers, novice entrepreneurs and a host of others. And while I’m certainly honored that such people hold my own work in high regard within each of these areas, it can get dicey when what I’m asked to critique is … well, just plain bad.
What do you do in these potentially awkward situations?
Just for fun and cringes, I’ll give you a specific example from my life and times thus far.
One woman, a songwriter, approached me online, having heard some of my own music. She had written a particular song that she was certain had what it took to be a Pop radio sensation. However, each time she submitted it to artists or labels, they replied vaguely (in the rare instance that they replied at all) that the song was, as she put it, “not quite there yet.” She was mystified. She was losing sleep over it, trying to find that one little thing that, once changed, would escalate her to fame, fortune and a place on the judging panel of a reality TV show. I told her I would take a listen.
The recording itself was awful, full of room noise and hum. Someone was badly hacking away in simple chord formations on an out-of-tune piano. Then a woman’s voice began singing (I assume it was the songwriter herself), sounding like the middle-aged lounge singer you hear on Tuesdays at the local sports bar, warbling through Pink’s I’m Coming Up in a manner that makes you wince mid-bite. Here are the opening lines of her song:
The bees are busy buzzin’
And the wasp (the bee’s first cousin),
And the hummingbirds are humming
Over lovers in the spring.
I am not kidding you. I sincerely wish I were.
It’s even harder when the person asking you for feedback is a family member or friend. One of my very best friends, whom I love like a brother and who is an invaluable and enthusiastic support in everything I do, came to me about a year ago, asking me what I thought about the tagline / mission statement he’d finally come up with for his new start-up. He had teamed up with someone who was more of a Spock-like analyst, while my friend is a super-creative soul; and together, they had labored for months over getting the wording just right––something they both felt represented each of them. He slid it across the table at me over lunch one day. Here is what it said:
Ŧ We facilitate connection and collaboration in order to access the heart of progress.
I read it. I read it again. There I sat, thinking, What does this even mean? And there was my energetic friend, beaming brightly at me in anticipation of my accolades on what he’d come up with. Oh … crap, I thought, how do I tell him what I really think of this?
Have you been there? Did you find yourself squirming empathetically as I described the two situations above?
If only everything we were asked to review were stellar, wouldn’t life be grand? Alas, more often than we’d like, leaders will be required to deliver negative reviews (or at least reviews that contain negative elements), which can be a real bummer. I’m happy to pass along a few tips and strategies I have used with good success when needing to give a tough critique.
Check Your Motives – How to Not Be Mean (Tip #1)
Let’s face it: being in a position of leadership or influence where we are called upon to assess someone else can go to our head. We can easily begin to feel pretty important, and this can cause us to view ourselves as intrinsically better than others. In situations where an appraisal of another person is involved, this becomes doubly dangerous. It’s vital that we go into any critique having honestly assessed our own motives first––before attempting to assess someone else.It’s vital that we go into any critique having honestly assessed our own motives first. Click To Tweet
For starters, ask yourself, Do I like this person? Am I in their corner? Do I genuinely want them to succeed? And work quality aside, do I see this person’s worth as being equal to my own? If your immediate and uncomplicated answer to each of these questions is YES, it’s a good sign that you are starting on solid ground. However, if you hesitate or outright realize that your answer is NO, it may be time to postpone until you can answer YES to these questions, to delegate to someone else who might be able to have an unbiased perspective, or to bow out where possible with a simple admission: “I don’t think I’m in the best frame of mind to offer feedback right now.”
Consider the Person – How to Not Be Mean (Tip #2)
I could write a whole post on this point alone (in fact, I essentially wrote a whole book on it). But for now, I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible while still offering some real food for thought.
Keep in mind when offering a critique that the person you are speaking with is a real person. They are not a position or a job. They are not an item on a list that needs to be checked off. They are not “their work.” Nor is their work the entire summation of them. They are a multifaceted and complex person, with a lot else going on in life.
If time allows, it doesn’t hurt to shoot the breeze about other stuff you might have in common, or to inquire about how the rest of this person’s life is going, even if it’s just asking how their weekend was or what they did for fun.
Also, consider what you know about this person’s temperament and personality, as well as your individual relationship with them and what it can sustain. With some people in our lives, we know we can just shoot it to them straight and they’ll feel loved or valued in our doing so; they may even prefer this direct approach. With others who are more shy or fragile, while we should never coddle or lie, we might want to try to gear our approach to be more gentle and circuitous.
In addition, consider the timing. Has this person just gotten a divorce? Did their grandmother just pass away? Have they taken responsibility for an aging and ill parent? You may not know all these details; but where you do, consider the timing you choose for your critique. Also, realize that these other factors in this complex person’s very real life may have had an effect on their performance. It’s not always possible to choose better timing. Likewise, external difficulties in someone’s life may last indefinitely, and therefore can’t always delay the delivery of “more bad news.” But being mindful of a person’s other stressors can help guide our approach.
Ask Good Questions – How to Not Be Mean (Tip #3)
Picking up from the last point, a great starter question before offering your opinion or critique is a genuine, “So, how are you? How’s life?” This simple question, asked with real intent to hear the answer, can get a pulse on whether now is the right time for your input, or if you may at least need to change your approach.
And picking up from the last post, using Socratic questions in place of statements can really work wonders. Consider questions like these:
“Before I tell you my thoughts, I’d like to know your own. What do you think your strengths were here? What do you think your weaknesses were?”
“What particular challenges did you face here? How do you think that affected the final result?”
“Who’s someone besides me that you really respect and look up to in this area? If we were to rank that person’s work as a ’10,’ how would you rank the work you’ve done here?”
(If it applies) “Why did you choose me in particular to give you feedback on this?” (Note: this question is great for establishing a subtle reminder of both your expertise in this area, and the fact that the other person has chosen to seek your input, whatever that may turn out to be.)
(Again, if it applies) “What kind of feedback were you hoping I might provide? Did you want a general overview? Would you rather I focused on strengths you can build on? Would you like me to give one main area of strength and one area I think you might work on?”
Many times, asking the right questions preempts the need for your having to voice a negative opinion at all, since the person’s own responses may be enough to provide the enlightenment necessary.
Assign Some Homework – How to Not Be Mean (Tip #4)
Where someone has approached you and asked for your opinion on their work, and you’re not feeling keen on giving that opinion, sometimes putting the onus back on them can serve a dual purpose: first, to determine how serious and committed this person is regarding their work; and, second, to buy you some time (perhaps indefinitely).
The gist is this: assign a task they must complete and return to you with, before you will be able to provide your feedback:
“Why don’t you make up a questionnaire containing ten specific questions you’d like me to give my feedback on. That will be a lot easier for me and will help make sure that I tell you exactly what you’d like to know.”
“Before I tell you what I think, I’d like to give you a challenge. Present this to ten total strangers, maybe at the mall, and ask them to give you their honest feedback on 3 x 5 cards. Don’t sway them. Just say, ‘Hey, would you [look at / listen to / etc.] this and just write down anything that comes to mind on this card?’ Then bring those back and we’ll discuss them along with my own thoughts.” (Note: this one works particularly well before you even look at or listen to the work, rather immediately after you’ve been asked.)
Whatever “homework” you come up with, don’t make it overwhelming; design it to be just enough to separate the determined from the dabblers. And again, if you choose the right kind of task, you may allow opportunity for certain revelations to occur before you even have to get further involved.
Throw a Bone – How to Not Be Mean (Tip #5)
Throwing “bones” is a topic to which I devote a whole chapter in The Best Advice So Far. If you can master this, it will become an invaluable tool not only in delivering a negative review, but in any situation where tension is high and conflict seems imminent.
Picture it. Pit bull. Angry pit bull. Drooling. Barking. Baring sharp teeth. He is in the mood to rumble. You want to get by with as little pain as possible. Having immense wisdom and foresight, you have brought the doggy bag (I know — my puns are incredible) of bones from the delicious, tender ribs you had for lunch. Said pit bull makes a go at you, snarling. Just then, you produce a bone, brandish it and throw it. As menacing and mean as he might be feeling, that dog has just been thwarted. He can’t resist the smell. He quickly decides the bone will be more satisfying than your rear end. He slobbers off toward the bone, leaving you to pass unscathed.
As it relates to interpersonal matters such as being called upon to deliver a negative critique or sentiment, throwing a bone is offering a positive, related and sincere complement to soften the blow before getting into the messy bit.
Look at the three key elements with me: positive, related, sincere. It’s important for all three to be in play for a “bone” to have maximum effectiveness. Here’s an example:
“Joe, let me start by saying, I’m impressed that you wrote a book! Not many people in the world will ever sit down and have the discipline to start and finish something so monumental, so kudos to you for already standing out from the crowd.”
This is positive, as well as being related (assuming you are about to tell Joe the problem areas with his book) and sincere.
Let’s see how two out of three looks (same scenario):
“Joe, before I tell you my thoughts on your book, I just want to tell you that your commitment to the gym is really amazing.”
Do you see how this “bone” doesn’t work so well? While being positive and perhaps sincere, the missing element, ironically, will likely cause your impending critique to be perceived as even worse than it really is (e.g., Man, he’s really stretching here. He must’ve completely HATED my book).
Likewise, if you attempt to throw a bone that is positive and related, but not sincere, you’ll just come off as smarmy or patronizing.
One more example, for good measure. Let’s say that you’re a manager and feel that Brian has been the central person in a pattern of interoffice gossip that is negatively impacting attitudes and performance. Here’s a potential “bone” along with the delivery of the difficult directive:
“Hey, Brian, I want to start by saying that you are someone everybody here seems to like to talk to. That’s awesome, because there’s a ton of potential in that. It makes you a real influencer around here. Keeping that in mind, I’ve noticed lately that some of that influence you hold is being channeled into what I’d call ‘unhelpful gossip.’ Do you know the kind of thing I’m talking about, without my needing to get specific?”
Notice here how I combined my “bone throwing” with the critique and then moved swiftly into a question. I’ve broached the topic at hand, but does it feel overly negative or critical to you?
Choose Positive Words – How to Not Be Mean (Tip #6)
In the end, when it comes time to finally have to just say it – determine to say it kindly. Plan your key thoughts and words in advance where possible. With anyone but the closest of friends, don’t agree to look/listen right now and give your opinion right now. I like to ask for three days in most cases, to allow that planning time. There is a world of difference between “frankly, this really sucks hardcore” and “there are a few key areas that need improvement.”
Remember that you are assessing the specific work, performance, behavior or attitude – not the person. Be sure to focus your critique that way (e.g., “Your characters in this book feel stock and not very compelling to me” not “You’re fooling yourself to think you’re going to be a writer”).
Starting with your head and heart in the right place, and armed now with a few new strategies, I trust that approaching tough reviews will no longer be quite so cringe-inducing. Still have questions? Thinking of a specific situation that presents unique challenges? Do you have some stellar strategies that have worked well for you? Please join in the conversation by adding your thoughts below.