“You’re so inspirational”
“She’s so charismatic”
“You’re not very diplomatic”
“He’s being constructive”
“You’re not proactive enough”
“He’s so confident”
“You need to be more statesmanlike”
Have you ever said any of these things to or about your team members – or had them said to you? What response did these statements elicit? A rebuff, a brusque “Well I don’t think so…” or a self-effacing “oh, it’s nothing…” – or simply bafflement? The intention may well have been positive – to praise someone or to point out where they need to improve – but these descriptive words may not have had the effect the speaker intended.
The inspirational person was secretly thinking they’d over-shared.
The charismatic leader isn’t unanimously seen that way by others.
The ‘diplomat’ causes upset with their outbursts.
The constructive boss’s words are being received as a thousand cuts.
The recipient of ‘not proactive enough’ has no idea what to do to hit the mark.
The person described as confident experienced their first presentation as a nervous wreck.
The ‘unstatesmanlike’ person infers they need to read up on Sir Winston Churchill.
Instead of feeling positive about what to do more/less of, the recipients may simply feel labelled. Between what the speakers say and the recipients of their opinions actually hear is the potential for a whole heap of confusion and misunderstanding.
That’s because their idea of feedback is to offer their opinion.
They’re entitled to their opinion.
However, relaying that opinion to their direct report, colleague or boss without stopping to pause for thought isn’t going to help anyone; it will only confuse.
In each case, the speaker needs to figure out what the other person did – the behaviour – that led to them forming that opinion.
Because if the speaker gives feedback that is considered, clear and actionable – focused on the actual, observable behaviour and not their subjective opinion – the recipient will be able to identify what they need to do more or less of. The colleague will be able to corroborate – or contradict – the behaviour under discussion. We tend to use adjectives to express these opinions, and when we do that the recipient can (rightly) feel labelled. What’s far more useful is to pinpoint the behaviour that prompted the speaker’s subjective inference.
Here’s your homework: next time you find yourself thinking someone’s ‘charismatic’, ‘forceful’, ‘aggressive’, etc. stop, think and pinpoint the actual behaviour. To put it another way for those who get the grammar: use verbs not adjectives.