The Sugar Coated Truth

January 7th, 2013

When I first started working US, 9 years ago, I started to believe I asked really good questions! It took me a few weeks to realize that the phrase ‘good question’ had nothing to with the question being good! It was just a nicer way of saying, I don’t know the answer to your question or more often I don’t want to answer.

Very soon, I started to realize that other similar phrases had nothing to do with their literal meaning.  A ‘good conversation’ often meant we talked for an hour without coming to any conclusions or taking any decisions. !!

And my favorite one…  my son’s soccer coach saying  ‘good effort’ to his team when the team lost a match by 12 goals!!

‘Amazing’, ‘fabulous’, ‘awesome’ and similar such phrases, which I had read in books and seldom, heard, were part of everyday vocabulary. My little guy got used to an ‘awesome’ with a smiley face for drawing few lines with a crayon and ‘good’ was not good enough anymore. (Getting a ‘GOOD’ on an assignment where I went to school was a big deal. ‘Fair’ and ‘OK’ were generally the best you could get.)

So what’s going on?

We say Yes, but…. when we want to say  ‘NO’ and we send ‘Thank You’ emails for projects which are launched 3 months late with 50% of the scope! There is no punishment for bad behavior and low quality work.

We, as a society and as organizations have mastered the art of  ‘mediocrity reinforcement’.

It has its advantages. Keeps Morales high.  Gives some decent short terms results. And reduces conflicts.

Lets talk about what it does not do…

First, by calling a mediocre performance ‘amazing’ we take away the opportunity for true excellence. And more importantly, there is no good way to communicate when you do occasionally see amazing performance in a project, assignment or a game.  Basically the differentiation between something amazing and something mediocre starts to blur and the result… more mediocrity.

Also, in our influential roles as managers, teachers and coaches, one important part of training we need to provide is ability to understand and handle failure.  By holding back negative feedback, we are not doing this very important part of our jobs because it’s an unpopular thing to do.

In organizations this a bigger challenge, where ‘ likeability’ and being ‘popular’ is a big part of your performance as a manager and as a peer.

If you look back though, a lot of us would realize that the person who taught you the important lessons of life was often the unpopular teacher or the more disciplinary parent whom you hated at some point, but today value the lessons they taught you.

So how does one maintain this very delicate balance of providing very important negative feedback without sugar coating and at the same time maintain the likeability to some extent?

Here are some things that I practice both at work and at home that seem to work really well.These help improve deliverables and the same time keeps your credibility as a manager and a parent.

Be short and objective – Quick, one sentence feedback on a task or assignment is received much better than long repetitive criticism.

Explain why its not good enough but don’t ask why it wasn’t done better – Be sure to explain why a certain assignment, design or architecture is not good enough and facilitate how it can be made better. Provide examples or pointers and set clear expectations. Digging into history of why it wasn’t done sounds like blaming and serves no purpose.

Keep the emotion out – This one is most challenging and requires a lot of self-control.  Make sure you don’t sound angry, disappointed or frustrated. The message often gets lost in the emotional outbursts.

Focus on task at hand – Never make generic statements like ‘ how come the sprint tasks are never done on time?’ Minor variations in language such as ‘ this design is not meeting the use case’ vs. ‘you didn’t design for this use case’ can go a long way in sending the right message. Criticize the task, not the person. The difference is subtle but important.

Instant feedback – Provides instant results and helps in avoiding build up of emotions on either side. Negative feedback if held back often comes out in the form of angry burst outs. The emotion takes over the objectivity of the conversation.

So next time you see a mediocre task, a mediocre performance, don’t hold back. Make sure to point what was missing and how it can be made better…. But say it with a smile. It helps!

Saying ‘NO’ when you want to say NO is not being negative, its just being honest.




Entry Filed under: Personal Narratives,Product Management,Uncategorized

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