Hold the “but…”

An almost constant ritual when giving negative feedback — whether to sports radio talk hosts or one’s colleagues — is to start off by praising them.  The Leadership Briefing had a post on what comes next (here):

[W]e tell them “this was great and that was good, but…”. I had this one woman who told me she would once a quarter receive a letter from the management of the company…. [T]he first half would go on about all the things the woman and her reception collegues did well. Then about half way through the letter always came a “, but…”. She said that in a while she only read the second half of the letter, she did not even care to read the upper part.

How quickly our friends, colleagues, and customers learn to discount our first well-intentioned praise.  I did this constantly — at least until one of my friends jumped in after my compliment with his own “but….”  The post goes on:

Compare “he is rich, but old” to “he is old, but rich”.  Usually what we put after the but totally outweighs what has come before.  Keep this in mind when you as a leader communicates. The solution of course, is to say the same thing, but exchange the “but” with an “and”. He is rich and old.

I don’t buy that the solution is this simple.  In fact, I believe it is simpler — don’t feel compelled to mix positives and negatives.  Perhaps one must do so during a performance review or when giving feedback on a complex environment.  My experience is that it is better to praise or coach (i.e., correct) in real time, with direct, unambiguous feedback of one type.  The feedback is perceived as more genuine, and therefore more valued.


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