Don’t just criticize the result, coach the approach

Earlier in my career as a software manager, I was presenting my team’s monthly progress to my skip-level manager during a one-on-one chat. I glossed over an important technical detail, which led me to a conclusion that was based on an educated guess, rather than hard facts. Having not realized this, I presented the conclusion in a matter-of-fact manner, expecting to move on to the next topic. The manager stopped me.

“Explain this to me again, how did you make this conclusion? Why couldn’t it be any of these other possibilities?”

An alarm bell went off in my mind, I realized I had made a mistake, and was taken aback by the inquisitive question. I scrambled sentences together to try to explain that I might have made a mistake, and will go back and look at the data and come back with a more complete answer later in the day. Usually, the conversation would have moved on from there, or ended with the manager belaboring the point of you shouldn’t make this mistake next time, etc. Instead, what this manager said next, was one of the most profound feedbacks I’ve received in my professional career:

“As a people manager, you will become less in touch with technical details over time. You job is to slow that process down as much as you can.”

Rather than remarking on the same mistake, the manager was extrapolating to critique the approach I took to arrive at the conclusion, and gave feedback on how to fix my approach, and not just on this one issue, but in general.

Leaders must avoid training employees to do as they say, but rather focus on delivering these three stages of feedback to actually coach employees to think.

  1. Why is the thing not good enough.

Good leaders set high expectations, then work to bring everyone up to their expectations.

That means sometimes your employees will not meet your expectation. In these situations, how you as the leader deliver your feedback can either inspire people to be motivated to work harder and smarter, or create an environment where your employees feel unvalued, or worse, fear they might disappoint you again.

It should hardly surprise anyone that constructive criticism is more useful than just giving people an earful of expletives. However, as leaders become more busy as their time become more stretched, it can be easy to develop empathy gaps, and let out disappointments at the expense of forgoing important teaching moments.

After all, by coaching the approach, even though it may take a hair more effort in the moment, you are paying it forward, so next time you may not have to critique the result.