Giving Feedback: “Do This, Not That”

Heather LakemacherOne of my coworkers likes to tell a story about John Wooden, the renowned head coach of UCLA’s basketball team from 1948 to 1975. Wooden managed to not only turn around a faltering basketball program but won ten NCAA championships in a twelve-year period. Players who worked under him have often been asked what the secret to his success as a coach was, and it’s surprisingly simple. He didn’t wait until after practice to give his players feedback. Instead, he spent the entire practice encouraging them to make minor tweaks, often by saying, “Do this, not that.”

For many people (myself included), giving coworkers “negative” feedback is incredibly difficult. It’s easier to just let things slide and avoid the conflict. The problem is, all those little things build up until one of two things happens. Either you finally lose your cool over something seemingly minor and unleash Niagara Falls on them, or you wait to provide feedback until performance review time and let their supervisor unleash Niagara Falls on them. Either way, you’ve damaged the relationship and done them the disservice of not being given the opportunity to correct their mistake or adjust their behavior.

So, how do we avoid these even worse outcomes? I think we can look to John Wooden’s coaching. Often a dichotomy is set up between biting your tongue and bluntly, tactlessly speaking your mind, both of which lead to conflict sooner or later, but Wooden provides an example of a middle way. We can mentally reframe our “negative feedback” as “a coaching opportunity”. We don’t have to make a big deal about it. We can just simply say, “Hey, next time, I would prefer if you did this instead of that.” You don’t have to talk about your coworker having done something wrong or having made a mistake that needs to be corrected. You would just prefer if they did it a little differently next time.

I’ve started trying this around the office, and I’ve discovered a funny thing. Most people are really receptive to these little tweaks! I even had one situation where the response was, “That’s a really good suggestion. I hadn’t thought of that.” So the next time you find yourself wondering what a coworker was possibly thinking, try a little coaching instead of stressing about delivering a heavy message. Do this, not that.

Heather Lakemacher is Policy Programs Director at the Institute for Humane Studies

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