Don’t rush to judgement. There were many times when I thought there was a performance problem, but it was the result of a misunderstanding or someone else gave the employee incomplete or conflicting information. Make sure you have your facts straight before you talk to someone.
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Arnold Stern.
Matthew is an award-winning technical writer, author, and public speaker. He is a Distinguished Toastmaster and won an Award of Excellence from the International Online Communications Competition. He works for a software company in Irvine, California and has published several books, including Mastering Table Topics and his most recent novel, Amiga.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I decided to become a writer in high school. I was going through typical teenage stuff, and I thought writing was a good way to express my feelings. My English teacher read my writing and encouraged me to develop my skills. When I was in college, I got a job for a small Commodore 64 software company. I started off writing press releases and branched into writing everything for the company, including user’s guides. That’s how I got into technical writing as a career, and my experiences helped inspire my novel Amiga.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In all the companies I’ve worked for, I’ve looked for ways to learn new skills and apply them to making documentation better for our users. When I worked for AST in 1991, our VP complained that user manuals are so large and complex. He held up a manual for his VCR and asked, “Why can’t our manuals be as short and simple as this?” As part of simplifying our manuals, I created an online guide using the Windows help system, which had just come out. Back then, it required Word files to be tagged manually. I created spreadsheets to track topics and links. Our online help system was praised by our VP and customers. Today, all documentation is available online.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
At one software company I worked at, we had a tech support director who loved yelling at people. One day, it was our turn. He called us into a meeting where he berated us over all the flaws he saw in our documentation. Since he was a director, we felt like we had to sit quietly and listen. Finally, I spoke up and said, “Has your team reviewed the documentation? We include them in all of our reviews. If they have issues, why didn’t they speak up?” That got him to stop yelling. I kept my job, incidentally. He was let go not too long after that.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not a mistake I made, but it is a cautionary tale I learned early in my career. The husband of one of my coworkers wrote a joke in one of his user manuals. He forgot to take it out, and 500 copies of that manual were printed with that joke still in it. He had to go into the warehouse one Saturday and use a black marker to cross that joke out of every manual. I learned to be careful what you put in your documentation and read everything before you send it out. It’s a lesson people can benefit from today, especially in social media.
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
My current employer stresses home/work balance. Employees need time for family, to deal with personal issues when they come up, and use their vacation time instead of just letting it accrue. This produces employers who are happier and more productive. I’ve worked at places where 45 hours a week was considered shirking and vacations were discouraged. It crushes employee morale and productivity, and it reduces the quality of work. Employees can’t maintain such a pace for very long. “Work smarter, not harder” is cliché, but it’s true.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I see leadership as a service. Good leaders remove obstacles, provide training, give motivation, and reinforce with praise so that the people they lead can do their best work and accomplish the organization’s objectives. Just as the Pope calls himself servus servorum, the servant of servants, good leaders put the good of their employees and the organization above themselves.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The best way to avoid stress in high-stakes situations is to come prepared. This way, you don’t get blindsided or embarrass yourself by giving information that proves to be wrong. If you understand the situation and have some knowledge of the people you’re talking to and how best to approach them, you will find yourself in more control. When we started implementing DITA for our documentation 10 years ago, I learned as much as I could about the architecture. I identified what I knew, and what I needed to know. I built a strong case for management about why I should take over the responsibility of maintaining our DITA system.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?
I’ve managed a variety of teams from work to volunteer organizations. What has worked best in all situations is to treat people with respect and let them have authority over their own responsibilities. Feedback is key in these situations. You set clear expectations, make sure everyone knows what is going on, and then provide guidance to keep the team on track.
My most challenging leadership role was the two years I was a Little League president. The kids were great. The adults were the ones who caused all the problems. I became president after a difficult situation with an all-star team caused the president and vice president to resign. I had to keep the organization on track by reminding everyone to keep the focus on the kids, follow the rules so we didn’t get our charter pulled, and make sure we had everything ready for the kids to play the following season.
This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?
When feedback is given properly, it can motivate employees and encourage them to grow. In Toastmasters, we talk about the “sandwich method” in giving evaluation. You start with positive reinforcement by recognizing what the person is doing well. You can then give any corrective advice and point out areas for growth. You end with encouragement and support. This way, the person has a positive foundation they can build upon with the advice you give them. They also get the motivation to follow your direction.
This is why feedback is not the same as micromanaging. With micromanaging, you’re trying to control all aspects of people’s work. This crushes morale, lowers motivation, and turns you into a bottleneck. Employees feel they can’t do anything unless you command it. Positive feedback gives employees the guidance and motivation to work on their own.
One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Don’t rush to judgement. There were many times when I thought there was a performance problem, but it was the result of a misunderstanding or someone else gave the employee incomplete or conflicting information. Make sure you have your facts straight before you talk to someone.
- Keep your emotions in check. The best way to do this is to focus on the goals, and not just your feelings. You may feel embarrassed that you didn’t make your deadline. Or the boss dumped on you, so you want to dump on someone else. Instead, think about the lasting consequences of your actions. Do you want to destroy employee morale in the long-term because you’re upset for a moment? Take a short walk or a few deep breaths before you speak.
- Decide what you want the outcome to be. I want the outcome to be for people to solve a problem or improve their performance. This is why positive feedback and the “sandwich method” are effective. People are willing to improve themselves if you give them the guidance and motivation to do so. I’ve never had to fire anyone, but I had one person realize they couldn’t fulfill our expectations, and they left on their own.
- Be willing to accept feedback in return. The performance problem may result from miscommunication on your part. There may be a factor you’ve overlooked. Or you might not have set clear expectations. Be willing to listen to the other person and acknowledge when you’re wrong. This doesn’t weaken you in your employee’s eyes. It makes them feel you respect them and want to work with them. You can both work together to resolve the situation.
- Encourage the other person to follow up with you. When you give positive and motivating feedback, people are more willing to keep you posted on their progress. They won’t feel you’re micromanaging or distrusting them. They feel comfortable talking to you about situations they’re facing, when they know you won’t chew their head off if something goes wrong.
Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.
How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
You can follow the “sandwich method” in email too. I would learn more heavily in the positive reaction at the beginning, so the feedback is easier for the other person to accept. More difficult discussions should be handled in person or by videoconference. Those need to be done face-to-face, not only to capture nuance and facial expressions, but to give the person a chance to react in real time.
In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s always a good idea to take a step back, assess the situation, and take a deep breath before responding. This is true even when an urgent response is needed. When I worked my first fast-food job out of high school, I had never used a microwave before. This was in 1979, and microwaves were still new and expensive. A customer asked me to reheat a sandwich. So, I put it in the microwave — along with the foil wrapper. There were a few sparks. My supervisor quickly took the sandwich out of the microwave and gave the customer a new one. She waited until the rush calmed down before taking me aside to explain what I did wrong. Had she chewed me out at the front counter, not only would I have felt humiliated when I already felt stupid, it would have alienated the customer.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A great boss creates an atmosphere of mutual respect. They make you feel listened to and valued. They give you the tools you need to do your work, especially the trust and confidence that you’ll do a great job. You feel inspired to do more than expected. You know your work is sincerely appreciated, even if the boss doesn’t say it. All of this comes from positive feedback.
More importantly, a great boss treats you like a person. I’ve been fortunate to have great bosses at my present employer, especially because I’ve had to deal with several personal issues in the past few years. My managers have been understanding, especially because they’ve had to deal with their own personal crises in their past. They’ve been flexible when I needed time to take care of matters, and they gave me support during the more difficult moments. When you feel valued in this way, you want to do more than expected. You want to stand up for them the way they’ve stood up for you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My biggest concern is that our society has become polarized to a dangerous degree. Our society is tearing itself apart because of our desire to be right and justify our biggest fears and worst impulses. What we need is a willingness to listen to each other and being human to one another.
Here’s where positive feedback can help and the “sandwich method” can help. We can start by seeking to understand and acknowledge their positions, recognize where they came from, and look for areas of agreement. Where we have concerns, we can point out constructively where those beliefs aren’t serving them. We can then reinforce their humanity and give them encouragement to consider other points of view. If you look at the most motivating speeches in history, they do something similar.
Just as successful teams and businesses create atmospheres of mutual respect, clear goals, and encouragement for growth, we can do the same for our society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you’re waiting for the day to end, you’re wasting your life away.” An employee at a Haagen-Dazs ice cream parlor told my friend and me this when we were working for a CPA in college. I was in a bookkeeping job I didn’t like, and I couldn’t wait until 5:00 rolled around. What the Haagen-Dazs employee said opened my eyes. If you’re stuck in a job you hate, you won’t do it well, and you certainly won’t do it for long. Not long after that, I found my first writing job. It’s important to have passion for what you do. If you can’t muster the will to get up to work in the morning, you need to make a change.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit my website at matthewarnoldstern.com and follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit with the tag maswriter. I’m also on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/maswriter/.
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.
I’m glad to help. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.