If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say…

At some point in our lives, our mothers have told us to bite our tongues. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This is good advice for the playground or the classroom. However, in a work environment, your mother is wrong.

High performance teams and healthy working environments are based on regular, appropriate feedback. Rather than shying away from giving feedback, healthy work dynamics take the view that when we tell someone the truth, we are doing them a favor. Great leaders and great teams share with their colleagues what they are doing well, what they are not doing well and how they can do better next time.

Yet, most of us fear giving feedback and fall into one of two extremes – Silence or Violence. Those who tend toward Silence hope that people will recognize problems and make corrections automatically. People who use this  approach drop subtle hints, hoping that others will read between the lines, understand the issues and make appropriate adjustments. Unfortunately, Silence rarely works. Others don’t often recognize the impact of their behavior or know how to change the situation.

Others tend toward Violence. Fortunately, this rarely leads to physical aggression. People with this tendency are harsh, critical and belittling. Their feedback points out what others do wrong, but rarely helps the recipient change or improve.

What’s the best approach? We suggest developing a method or template for giving feedback that clearly states the problem and helps the recipient improve. Here is an example:

  1. Ask permission. “Do you have a minute to talk?”
  2. State the problem. “I’ve noticed that you have been procrastinating on preparing for meetings recently.”
  3. Explain the impact. “The quality of the materials is going down and you seem less confident when presenting your ideas.”
  4. Set the expectation. “For our next meeting, I would like you to finish your presentation notes two days prior to the meeting, so you can rehearse your presentation and we can check for typos.”
  5. Explain the positive impact of the changed behavior. “This should give you more confidence when presenting your ideas and will give others a chance to help polish your presentation.”
  6. Ask for feedback from the recipient. “What are your thoughts?”

Fortunately, our mothers were rarely wrong. Speaking up and providing regular, appropriate feedback creates healthy work dynamics in which everyone improves.