Friday, April 8, 2011

Organizational Tip: Be Effusive

Here's my new strategy for corporate communication. But first, the setup:

a) No one likes criticism. Even constructive criticism. Raw critique sucks - and it sucks more if you put time into the item being taken down. I don't mind when someone criticizes my outfit when I'm lying around the house, but if I'm at a wedding, I'm gonna feel bad.

b) You have to critique/approve/deny things in organizations. That's the job. You can't rubber stamp all things.

c) There is usually something good about whatever you're seeing - even if it is the knowledge that someone spent AGES on it.

So, here's the plan:

First, be effusive about something. Anything. Pick something you genuinely like, and blow it up big. Not "I like the colors on that advertisement" - more like "I LOVE the colors on the ad. I'm so glad you departed from our normal grey/brown scheme - and it adds so much life to the whole thing. The emotion it creates is spot on."   And bonus points if you can say "I couldn't pick a color from a Crayola 64 box if you paid me - I'm so glad you know this stuff." 

This elevates the other person, rightfully, as an expert, above you, in their domain. after all, there are things in their job that you cannot do.

Second, deliver the tentative critique lightly - and with some self-doubt.  "I'm looking at the text on the left, and it strikes me as odd that it is centered... it keeps catching my eye and the words seem to wrap at strange points. You know your graphic design, but... this is just my feedback... "

Third, deliver the feedback of which you're certain  - where you're the subject matter expert - more firmly, and with an explanation that reminds them of your expertise. "The heading really should read Gouda is Good, because that aligns with our corporate branding and emphasizes the alliteration. I know you were trying to make space with Good Gouda, but this is a broader decision."

Fourth, always thank them for their work and look forward to a new iteration."Thanks SO much for your work on this - it's wonderful to have graphics on board here to make this campaign more integrated and set the right tone. I can't wait to see the next rev - I might have to paper my office with these!"

This is a variation on the traditional "shit-sandwich" that is espoused by consulting firms - only I always felt that strategy fell flat. Telling someone "You write well. Also, you smell bad. Finally, great tie." never sufficiently brought them onto your team.

The secret to this strategy is in its authenticity. Emphasize the things you truly do like - and lend some emotion to it. Take the time to really celebrate it. And set them up as an explicit expert in their domain - since many people do feel their expertise is called into question in these discussions. Then, in a collaboration, be firm and strong in your source of expertise - since, if you set them up as experts in A, you are more than within your rights to be an expert in B.  And close with a smile.

If anyone is listening, you look like an awesome collaborator, the other person gets their props appropriately, and none of it is really inauthentic. So far, this is working really well for me. The only hitch is that it takes a little more time this way... but the payoffs are worth it.


Rob said...

Good points here. Couldn't help but notice your schema is pretty much the opposite of how people operate in academia & the arts, where you spend a few weeks, months or years working on something to get the following feedback: "Let me use my incredibly narrow expertise to spend 5 minutes dismantling your two-paragraph gloss on James' late career." "So, nice talk, but your entire approach is suspect." And that's if they're NOT out to get you; fortunately I've not often been a target of this sort of thing myself, but I see it all the time. It's generally worse for creative types like fiction writers, since taste is allowed to stand in for judgment and argumentation at times.

I think you highlighted an important difference that makes your recommendations necessary in your context, though--the existence of a team, with all the relationship management that implies. It's obviously harder to ask Person Z for something in good faith, let alone work daily with him/her, if you tore up his/her last thing. However, the sunny-side approach also plays into something I've seen a lot with grade inflation and mediocre students who were praised without real merit in high school: the well-documented human tendency to think we're better at something than we really are and overestimate our value, thus closing ourselves off to opportunities--in some cases necessities--for improvement.

Lilac - Like The Flower said...

That's pretty tragic, Rob. Indeed, there is much room for grade inflation in organizations. It's a real issue - but - the truth is that on the occasional instances when someone is being called to do something, and fails colossally, the prior history of near-success actual becomes a liability. So, I'm not sure the net effect isn't negligible...