Buisinesswoman screaming at her lap topWhy is it that leaders, managers and even parents have a tendency to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right? Neuroscience has shown that we care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things (Carnegie and Cole 177). Even when we are trying to encourage others are brain seems preoccupied with negative behavior, shaping our perception of reality and crowding out the positive (Carnegie and Cole 177). Remember that the person you’re talking to has a brain just like yours (mostly) and any negative or critical commentary can become their obsession (Carnegie and Cole 177).

Bad news or negative feedback is often easier to accept when the individual has been appreciated for their value to the organization (Carnegie and Cole 177). Sooner or later though, you are going to have to get down to brass tacks and deliver the bad news. This is where many managers and parent screw up. They end up giving feedback in a way that actually sounds like the person didn’t screw up, or they give watered-down feedback leaving the other person to sort of shrug their shoulders and wonder why they talked at all. Psychologists call this The Mum Effect.

The Mum Effect results from people wanting to avoid becoming the target of others negative emotions. What starts out as bad news becomes happier as it travels up the ranks because as each boss hears the news from his or her subordinates, they make it sound a bit less before passing it up the chain (Carnegie and Cole 180). Some of the feedback I remember the most was negative. Some of the feedback I respected the most was still negative but demonstrated care and recognize my value.

  • We have all heard the phrase “praise publicly but criticize privately,” or some version thereof. When we  publicly call someone out for a screwup all we do is build resentment and damage relationships between each other and their peers. Follow the same advice in the digital world. If someone says something stupid in social media, or sends out one of those emails with hundreds of people cc’d about some sort of urban legend that could’ve easily been checked on snopes.com, just email them back or call them rather than CCing their entire distribution list.
  • Monkey see, monkey do. Carnegie and Cole cite the extraordinary leadership of Dick Winters of Easy Company during World War II, whose contributions were highlighted in the Stephen Ambrose book Band of Brothers. People will do what they see. We see this with parents all the time when they tell their kids to do is they say about as they do. It is absolutely stupid to think that your kids will not do as you have done. There are numerous examples of Winters’ leadership ability but in almost every single one he is seen doing what he wants his men to do not telling them to do it. Whether it is charging towards hundreds of enemy soldiers (Winters was out in front), or trying to get them to move off of a road that has been pretty sited by enemy main machine-gun fire, by standing up amidst the bullets, and literally kicking and throwing his men out of the field of fire, Winters put himself through the same hardships as his men. Digitally, its the same message – whatever behaviors you want to see in the digital world, do those yourself (this tactic also works with road rage).
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders (Carnegie and Cole 193-194). First, let’s admit that there are times when direct orders and necessary, such as in the military, during an emergency response of some sort or to yell at your kid to get out of the road. But most of our lives are not spent in this situation. I had an interesting realization the other day when I saw a professional football coach talking to one of his players. Unlike high school, college or even back in pee wee, these coaches really cannot get away with just screaming at NFL players, many of whom are either their own age or older and most all of whom make a lot more money and have agents and people that will pay them to play for another team. Carnegie and Cole cite the actions of Navy Captain Michael Abrashoff who took command of the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer with a crew full of sailors just biding their time until discharge. He personally interviewed all 310 crew members, in an attempt to link their goals. He asked many questions to find out their challenges and connected with their goals, not just his own (Carnegie and Cole 194). The results were extraordinary and can be found in Abrashoff’s own book, It’s Your Ship.

But why should a US Navy Captain worry about what his men or women think? Didn’t I just use the reference that for people in the military its okay to tell them what to do? Yes, when you must, but why not other times?

Because people don’t like to be ordered around (Carnegie and Cole 195)

I am not talking about always asking questions when you’re in a leadership position. When the captain says turn the ship to heading zero-two-zero he wants you to turn the ship to heading zero-two-zero. He doesn’t say, “boatswain, do you think we should turn the ship to zero-two-zero,” unless there is some other reason that he’s questioning his decision. Questions allow you to create a conversation, and I think we would all rather be asked questions than be told what to do (Carnegie and Cole 197). When you give feedback, begin conversations with honest and genuine appreciation rather than a hard-nosed reality in your face approach (Carnegie and Cole 176). The recipient will be much more amenable to your ideas or at least less defensive (Carnegie and Cole 176).

Many managers struggle with performance evaluations. Nobody likes to give negative feedback. Okay, wait, I had a few instructors in officer candidate school who seemed to take great pleasure in it, but I’m talking about the rest of the world here. A tactic that is been shown to be very effective is to have the individual do a self appraisal first (Carnegie/Cole 197). This often leads to more satisfying reviews for both the employee and the manager  (Carnegie/Cole 197). This tactic even works for parents. When one of our kids does something wrong we will often ask them a question about their actions and the results (when we are thinking rationally that is), rather than pouncing on them. If we are really on our game we will ask what else they could’ve done. Sometimes we will ask what they believe their punishment should be, and this too is often effective.

Author Max DePree in his book Leadership is an Art: The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality – the last is to say thank you (Carnegie and Cole 175). Part of defining reality is being honest with the individual. Empty feedback or shining the other person on is not going to do anybody any good. The leader must define reality, but in saying thank you, the leader must also appreciate the persons value, even if their value to the organization is at an end. Of course, you can’t tell you child that their value is at an end (although. . . uh never mind), so in a parents’ case, you ALWAYS affirm their value and your love for them, while focusing on the behavior, not the person.

In the social media realm, I see this all the time in the LinkedIn group discussions. Most people can disagree with one another but still respect that individual. But when people start calling names, telling the other one how stupid they think their ideas are, going down that dark path of disrespect, that is when the conversation ends – but in the digital world those words stick around forever. When somebody starts tearing someone else apart, rather than their idea, you can unfriend them or kill the connection with just a couple of clicks of the mouse. And that person has also, through their words, has let me know that I never want to do business with them.

The digital world is here to stay. Sir Richard Branson put it best:

How companies [and people] adapt to this energetic and sometimes chaotic world will find their future success. The website, Facebook page, blog and Twitter feed are no longer add-ons to a business’s is communication budget: they should be central to its marketing strategy, and used in coordination with other marketing efforts.”

Winning friends and influencing people involved the same strategies in today’s world as they did over 50 years ago when Dale Carnegie first wrote his seminal book. In fact, his lessons are even more important because in the digital world what you say not only can and will be held against you (and for you) for eternity. Today, your words aren’t confined to the person you’re sitting next too – today they travel at light speed, 24,000 miles around the world. Watch what you say.

Carnegie, Dale, and Cole, Brent. How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012. Print.

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