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Josh Rovner: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Focus on the behavior and the impact it had. Say to the person, “I have to let you know that when you did X, here’s what happened that was an issue or a problem.” Notice that I said “when you did X”. By focusing on the behavior (what the person did), it makes it direct without being […]

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Focus on the behavior and the impact it had. Say to the person, “I have to let you know that when you did X, here’s what happened that was an issue or a problem.” Notice that I said “when you did X”. By focusing on the behavior (what the person did), it makes it direct without being personal. Notice that I didn’t say, “you were very bad” or “you didn’t do a good job” or something like that. Those phrasings can come across as personal attacks even if you don’t mean them that way. People can shut down if you say something like that. Plus, the issue is not that the person is bad. The person you’re giving feedback to is not defined by what you’re giving them feedback about. So don’t make it about the person. Make it about the behavior and the impact.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Rovner.

Josh Rovner is the author of the best-selling business book Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company. Josh has more than twenty years of experience as a leader and consultant, working with all levels of small to large corporations to grow their revenues and improve their performance. He leads change and transforms businesses by communicating clearly about complex subjects, designing effective processes, and developing and coaching people. Josh received his Bachelor of Science in Communications, summa cum laude, from Boston University, and his Masters of Management in Hospitality from Cornell University. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

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?

Sure! I got my undergraduate degree in Communications. After starting off as a broadcast journalism major, I switched to public relations. As part of that major, I wound up doing an internship at a luxury hotel, and that’s where I discovered the hospitality industry. I loved hotels and hospitality so much I decided to go to graduate school to get my masters in hospitality management. Graduate school is where I discovered my analytical side and learned about business administration. Since then I’ve worked with a number of different companies in a lot of capacities.

Having that foundation in communications, hospitality, and business has been a great background for my work in the corporate world. Once I got into the corporate world, in addition to holding commercial and business-leadership positions, I ended up in the organizational effectiveness and learning & development space, which allowed me to see things with a whole new lens. That’s what I love doing now and what led me to write my book.

Besides my education and work experience, though, the most critical part of my background related to giving feedback comes from my parents. Growing up, my father was a doctor, but he also held a lot of executive leadership positions in the healthcare industry. So I always saw his approach and heard about all the business issues he had to deal with in that capacity. He’s a very rational, analytical person who is very focused on the bottom line and the big picture.

At the same time, my mom was (and still is) a therapist. With her, it was always about feelings (and still is). When I was young, she was always encouraging me to share and talk through my feelings. Even today, whenever we talk, it’s the first question she asks me. “How are you feeling?” She also instilled in me from a very early age how important it is to consider other peoples’ feelings and make people feel comfortable.

I’m lucky because I’m really a blend of both of my parents — the rational/analytical/business side from my dad and the emotional intelligence from my mom. What’s interesting is that even though my mom has never really worked in the corporate world, it’s the skills I learned from her that have really helped me become the best leader I can be. I’ve done a lot to continue to cultivate those skills over the years. But they started with my mom, no doubt.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think what makes me stand out is the way I approach a company’s problems. I do it in a holistic way that looks at all the different parts of the work environment that contribute to it. That’s how I came up with the ten critical flaws I talk about in my book.

I’ve learned from the work I’ve done over the course of my career that most companies’ struggles — financial and otherwise — come from a variety of factors in the work environment that work together to create a problem. And yet most people — especially executives and leaders — make the mistake of assuming the problems are related to the people in the company alone.

I have heard so many leaders say they think their problems stem from not having the right people in the job. But when we step back and look at it, that’s the last thing they should be worried about!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Sure. That’s really hard because I have lots of interesting stories! But the one I’m thinking of now is great because it involves making a true believer out of a skeptic. I love any time I can make that happen.

This story took place years ago when I facilitated a workshop for a leadership team that was trying to decide on what they should accomplish for the year. There were many executives and leaders in the room, and there were literally more than 100 ideas that were brought up as possibilities. I facilitated the meeting in such a way that within a couple of hours we were able to narrow it down to the top seven. (In my opinion, seven was still too many. I would have gone with only 3–5. But it was incredible progress, especially for this group).

Everyone had a genuinely good time doing the work. I had them up and moving around, working in groups. It was both effective and fun, and this was not something that group was used to.

Several attendees came up after the workshop to thank me. One particular executive said, “You know…that session was really great. I loved it. I can’t believe how well it worked. When I heard about the fact that we were going to have this session at our meeting, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be SO painful!’ But it wasn’t painful at all. In fact, it was invigorating. I can’t believe you were able to help us focus so well and so fast. Thank you! Great job!”

What this shows is that if you approach things in the right way, you can make magic happen — even if it seems like you can’t. It’s hard to do, and it requires a lot of thought and planning. But it’s definitely possible.

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?

Oh, gosh. I’ve made so many mistakes in my career it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ll tell you one story that’s funny and memorable now, although it wasn’t then. When I first started in the pricing world many years ago, which is a very technical and analytical profession, I was extremely overwhelmed with all the technology, tools, and processes. I remember my boss telling me that the person training me thought I wasn’t going to make it. I was that bad! Fortunately, my boss believed in me enough to keep me on. Eventually, I figured it out and got to be very good at it. Later on, I got good enough that I wound up training a lot of people how to do it.

The lesson I learned from that is that you need to be patient with people. Just because someone doesn’t execute perfectly on the first try, that doesn’t mean that person is a “bad fit”. People need a bit of time, help, and direction. This is true even for CEOs and other executives at the top of the company. That’s also where I realized that people need clear processes to follow that help them know how to make the decisions they need to make and why.

Another funny story that comes to mind is when I was a public relations intern. This was long before online media. One of my jobs was cutting out news articles and photocopying them in a very precise way for distribution. That sounds so easy, and it should have been. But I was horrible at it! I remember I was so bad that one of my bosses got so angry with me one day that she told me I needed to get my eyes checked. It was crazy!

Although it was painful at the time, it’s funny to think about that now. And I learned a few great lessons from that experience.

The first was that it’s okay to not be good at everything. And if you don’t really like something you are doing, it’s okay to focus on something else. The second lesson I learned was that details are important. I needed to pay attention to details more — especially if I’m doing something that’s not necessarily a strength for me.

The third and most important lesson I learned was that you should always be kind to people — even if they are not performing well. Losing your temper or getting visibly frustrated does not help people perform better. It generally makes them either shut down or avoid you. You can’t achieve greatness if your team is operating in that way. The way you behave carries tremendous weight, especially if you are a top executive or business leader.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

There’s a lot that I’d say. Mainly, my advice relates to treating and curing the ten critical flaws I discuss in my book. In order to avoid employees burning out, you need to create an environment in your company that enables employees to thrive. Here are several suggestions:

  1. Give your employees clear goals. The goals should have numbers in them, and there should be a clear, agreed-upon standard for judging whether they’ve achieved both the goals themselves, as well as the activities needed to achieve the goals.
  2. Don’t try to do too many initiatives at once. Focus on the “vital few” that are the most important, and have everyone work on those things only. Avoid giving different teams different goals that may wind up in conflict with each other. Spreading people too thin burns them out, and it will burn you out, too.
  3. Make sure you have clear processes that help the employees make the best decisions they can given the circumstances.
  4. Provide employees the tools and resources they need to get the job done. This varies greatly depending on the roles and goals. Check with your top performers to find out what they do. Replicate that for everyone else. Ask your team what they need, and make it happen.
  5. Adjust your compensation structure and recognition mechanisms to reward the people who do the activities the way you want them to.
  6. Expose your employee-related blind spots by giving people a mechanism to bring up issues. I recommend my Company Symptom Questionnaire, which is available on my website, as a way to show people you’re willing to listen and see what issues are burning people out in your company. Apart from that, encourage people to bring up issues related specifically to burnout. Tell them clearly that your goal is never to burn people out, so if people are burned out, something is wrong. And you want to know about it, so you can deal with it and figure out a better way.
  7. Assess workloads based on less than a typical 40-hour work week. It’s rare that employees truly work on their exact job for 40 hours in a week. Often, jobs require much more than that to be done well. So when you are planning for how many people you need on a team to accomplish a goal or get the job done, build in a good amount of slack time — or focus the role on only a part of the job.
  8. Avoid scapegoating. If your employees are burning out, don’t assume it’s because they’re not the right people for the job. Most likely, you as a leader have created a “broken system” work environment in your company. You need to confront and fix that openly and honestly.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

This is really a hard one because leadership is such a broad, powerful topic. It’s hard to define it succinctly in a meaningful way.

But I’ll say this: For me, leadership is about getting people to come along with you when they don’t have to because they are inspired by where you are trying to take them.

It’s easy to seem like a leader if you have a leadership title, like CEO or Executive Vice President. But to truly inspire people to bring out the greatness in themselves for the good of the organization is what makes great leadership. It’s about forming great, trusting relationships with your team, with those above you, and with all your other stakeholders. And then it’s about creating a work environment that enables people to thrive in the specific way you need them to, in order to produce necessary results.

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?

This is a great question. I have worked a lot on this, as leadership is definitely stressful at times. For me, I like to take a walk. I find that when I’m walking it’s a great way to mentally prepare, talk myself through what I want to say or accomplish, plan for how others may react, get into the right mindset, and tap into my presence. As a side note, I actually wrote an article about what presence is and how to build it for yourself. You can access it here.

A lot of people talk about mindfulness and breathing. I think that’s great, too. But for me sometimes it’s hard to get out of my head if I’m sitting still. The movement that happens with walking, and tuning into what’s around me when I walk, helps me to clear those mental blocks and feel prepared. Plus, it’s great exercise!

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 have led and managed many teams and people in my career of more than 20 years. I’ve given feedback countless times. It’s one of the most important skills leaders need to have.

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?

Definitely. If you can’t give people feedback as a leader, then your team will never be able to produce the results you are looking to achieve. Even though you as a leader may have a clear picture in your own mind of what you want to accomplish, no one else thinks the same way you do. So unless you tell people what they are doing that’s helpful and what they’re doing that’s not helpful (and why), you will find that you may be very disappointed in what your team does. This is true at all levels of the organization but especially at the top.

It’s tricky because it may seem to you like the team is failing in that case, especially since it’s so clear in your head. But really in that case it’s not the team’s failure. It’s yours as a leader because you haven’t helped them to see what you see or to consider what they need to consider.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn, and it took a while for me to learn it. But once I learned it, I always started there. Now, if people aren’t producing what they need to, the first thing I assume is that I haven’t made it clear enough. The questions I ask myself are, “how can I make things clearer for them?” and “what exactly are they not clear on?”

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.

Here are my top suggestions for giving people on your team honest feedback without being harsh. These suggestions work whether employees are remote or not.

  1. Focus on the behavior and the impact it had. Say to the person, “I have to let you know that when you did X, here’s what happened that was an issue or a problem.” Notice that I said “when you did X”. By focusing on the behavior (what the person did), it makes it direct without being personal. Notice that I didn’t say, “you were very bad” or “you didn’t do a good job” or something like that. Those phrasings can come across as personal attacks even if you don’t mean them that way. People can shut down if you say something like that. Plus, the issue is not that the person is bad. The person you’re giving feedback to is not defined by what you’re giving them feedback about. So don’t make it about the person. Make it about the behavior and the impact.
  2. Explain that “perception is reality”. This is a phrase I learned in my public relations days. It’s powerful because sometimes people have difficulty accepting that they have done something that had a negative impact. They may think that they are in the right even if you know and the evidence indicates they are not. When this happens, I always talk about the “perception is reality” phrase. I explain that even if they don’t agree with the perception, someone out there has it and has voiced it. And it’s real to that person. So even if they don’t agree that there’s a problem, they need to deal with the perception that there is a problem and act accordingly. If they don’t, they may not be able to move forward effectively. When you talk about having to deal with the perceptions of other people (which may or may not be accurate, but that’s not the issue), you help the feedback recipient open up and hear what you have to say without feeling as hurt, defensive, or threatened.
  3. Emphasize that you are giving feedback to help the person get better and grow. If you have a good relationship with the person you’re giving feedback to, they may already know this — especially if you have given them constructive feedback before. But it always helps to remind them. As part of doing this, I often like to acknowledge that I understand why the person did what they did, even if it was not effective. That way, you show that you understand the effort they put in. Again, this helps people open up and hear your feedback.
  4. Give clear guidance on a better way to handle the situation in the future. This is how you show that the feedback you’re giving is intended to help the person succeed better next time. Many times, people make mistakes or do inappropriate things because they don’t know or didn’t think of any other way. It’s up to you as a leader to help them by saying something like, “Next time, try this instead…” or “Here’s how I would have handled that situation differently that likely would have resulted in a better outcome.” If necessary, you should also talk with the person about additional things they should consider before they make a decision or take an action that will help them avoid future “land mines” they may not know about.
  5. When you’re finished providing your feedback, ask them for their feedback. The specific question you should ask is, “what do you think of what I’ve just said [or what we’ve just discussed]?” This open-ended question enables them to revisit your feedback and take note of it. It then allows them to react in a real way using their minds. At this point, it’s really important for you to stop talking and listen. You need to hear what they have to say, so you can fully understand the situation and deal with any nuances you may not have thought of. This is something many leaders don’t do. But it really helps people process what you’ve told them, take it to heart, and commit to addressing it.

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?

In general, I would not recommend giving someone constructive feedback over email just because they are remote. I’d strongly suggest that if you have to give constructive feedback to a remote employee, you should do it at least over the phone if not via video call. Then, afterward, you can send an email recapping what you discussed over the phone. Your email recap can serve as documentation if that’s necessary.

That said, if you have to give feedback over email and have no way to do it via phone or video call, the previous steps that I talked about in the last question are a good template for how to approach the email you send. Explain that you need to give the person feedback to make them aware of the impact they’ve had and to help them grow and improve. Focus on what they did and describe the impact it had. Give clear guidance on what to do differently or better next time. Then, ask them to respond with their thoughts. If possible, at that point, I’d definitely recommend that you offer the option of discussing “live” as a next step — either through a phone call or video chat.

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 depends a lot on the situation. If there has been an incident, then ideally, you want it to be as quickly as possible after the incident because with time you and the other person may forget the reality of the situation just based on how life works. That said, if there has been a lot of emotion associated with the incident — for example, if you or the other person are particularly angry, scared, or sad — then it’s best to wait for a while until those tough emotions have settled as much as possible. You may need to work through them for yourself to ensure you are being fair and thinking clearly.

Also, if you haven’t prepared for what you want to say and how you want to say it, it can be good to wait until you have as much as possible. If you can avoid it, you don’t want to risk saying something too harsh or too off the point because you haven’t processed it yourself.

In general, when it’s not related to a bad incident, it’s important to give frequent feedback to people whenever you are responsible for their performance. With regular feedback, I don’t think there’s one right answer to how often. There are many reasonable possibilities.

Depending on the situation and person, giving feedback daily, weekly, or monthly are all potentially reasonable. Anything less than that, and you risk going off the rails. The feedback doesn’t have to be formal or complicated. Even a simple “great job” or “thank you for your work on this” is effective.

You have to match the way you give feedback to the person you’re giving feedback to and the situation you’re giving feedback about. Some people may want regular feedback at a set time. If so, try to do that. Others may not need it as frequently or formally. That’s fine, too. But they should know that the door is always open even if it’s not so structured. And you should be careful that you don’t just take it for granted and stop giving them feedback altogether. That’s when the problems start.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

I think a great boss is someone who enables his or her employees to succeed in their roles and grow in their careers.

I often tell people who work with me that I have three goals for them: I want them to be happy, productive, and growing. Happy means I want them to be happy with the work they are doing, the team they’re on, and the relationships they have with me and others on the team and in the company. Productive means I want them to produce work that adds value for their clients or customers (which could be internal or external). Growing means I want them to continually get better in their role, learn new things, stretch themselves, and prepare for the next step in their career, whatever that may be.

The foundation for being a great boss starts with being genuine. You need to genuinely care about your employees, and you need to have genuinely good personal relationships with them.

Once you’ve established a good relationship, the next part of being a great boss is supporting your employees, helping them improve, and steering them in a better direction when things don’t go well or when they make mistakes. You also need to advocate for them when they identify issues that need to be solved and/or have great ideas for how to make things better.

Once employees become proficient and successful in their roles, the next step is to help them figure out how they want to grow. Here it’s totally about helping each individual employee on his or her own journey. Have conversations with your employees about this to find out what they want, and then do whatever you can to help them get there. That could be giving advice, introducing them to people, giving them a stretch assignment, advocating for a promotion — any number of things. The important thing is that you keep the focus on the employee’s wants and be completely altruistic in helping them.

If you do all the things I just talked about, you will be a great boss. I have been fortunate to have had many great bosses over the years who have done all those things for me.

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. 🙂

We talked about this when we discussed how business leaders can create a fantastic work environment, and I’m happy to talk about it again. The movement I’m trying to inspire is for top executives and business leaders to lead their companies in a way that’s better not just for the bottom line but also for the people in the organization and for humanity as a whole.

The way they can do that is by learning about the critical flaws that exist in their companies and working intentionally to treat and prevent them. That’s what will create an amazing company culture with happy, engaged employees. That’s what will drive increased customer satisfaction and loyalty. That’s what will create efficient, effective operations. That’s what will drive extraordinary business results; and that’s what will lead to scalable, sustainable growth.

I would urge all executives to cure the critical flaws in their companies as soon as possible. Whether it’s individually or, hopefully, as part of a new movement, that’s the best way for them to make the world a better place!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Once again, we talked about this when we chatted previously about creating a great work environment. But today I’ll give you different quote that’s relevant to the topic of feedback. I learned this one from my mom when I was young. She used to tell me, “Remember…It’s not what they do to you. It’s what you make of what they do to you.”

Every one of us will have many opportunities not only to give feedback but also to receive it. If you want to be good at giving feedback in a meaningful way, you also have to know how to take it. Sometimes feedback hurts — even when intentions are good.

When you give feedback to someone, you become “they” because you are “doing something” to that person. The more you do something good for them by giving them feedback in a constructive way, the more likely that person will take your feedback to heart and make something great from what you’ve said and done for them. That not only benefits that person; it benefits you and likely many other people, too.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn and check out my website at https://joshrovner.com

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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