Paraphrase or restate the recipient’s point of view so they know they’ve been heard and understood. If you’ve misunderstood, continue to work towards understanding their point of view. “Let me see if I understand. You put the first one in backwards and decided that it would be best to do the rest the same way to keep it consistent?”
As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Cole.
Adam Cole is the Director of the Grant Park Academy of the Arts (www.grantparakrts.com) A jazz and classical performer and educator, he has written numerous books on learning (www.acole.net). He is also the founder of TruerMU™, a self-paced online learning site (www.truermu.com)
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 was a public school music educator for 12 years. When I was finally able to start my own business, I began a piano studio which has grown into a school with five teachers. Most recently I’ve begun reaching out to learners through our online platform at TruerMU™
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out because we’re a community, not just a school! When Covid hit, our teachers had one week to learn how to get their lessons online, and our parents had the same week. Everyone worked hard to make the transition and we didn’t lose a single family. In the Spring we had an online recital and shared it on our website at www.grantparkarts.com. We were able to survive because we created a community that cares about learning and about one another.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was invited to Israel to give a lecture on improving our ability to learn music and math. As a Jewish person, there’s a high expectation that you go to Israel at some point, but at 48 years old, I’d never been. This trip gave me the opportunity to talk to people about a subject I was passionate about in a place I never thought I’d go!
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?
When I was training to become a public school music teacher I learned a lot of strategies for dealing with misbehavior. Drawing on those experiences for my first class, I created a time-out chair and invited elementary students who felt like they had to misbehave to get up at any time and go sit in the chair. The first day or so it worked great. Then people began fighting over the right to sit in the chair. After that, behavior plummeted and a kid even threw a shoe. Other teachers were whispering about me, and I’m lucky I didn’t lose my job! Probably it would have been best to talk to more experienced teachers about the best strategies for behavior in that particular environment, stick to it, and then gradually develop my own style, rather than just experimenting with my own ideas on the children!
What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Employees are a lot like students. They want to feel as though their particular needs are being recognized and met. The difficulty is that you may have to meet different needs at different times, which can be confusing and tiring. Being careful how you hire, making sure the hire is compatible with your own leadership style, is essential. Beyond that, remembering that the employees will pass the exact level of attention you give to them on to the customer should keep you honest!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is different from management. A leader provides a vision and an example. A leader delegates, trusts and verifies. The President of the United States is ideally a leader, not a manager, and has a vast staff to manage his or her agenda.
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?
I recognize my own fallibility — I have a generalized anxiety disorder and suffer from high stress responses before I perform or present. Knowing this about myself, I prepare extremely well and have learned to recognize and tolerate that stress response. It’s easy to confuse the kind of despair I experience in that pre-performance state with a more general despair, and not confusing the two helps me recognize that the experience has a limit and will end after the performance.
During the trip to Israel, I was an absolute wreck the day of the presentation, but I knew why I felt that way and was able to self-talk (and get support from my wife!) to keep moving forward, prepare adequately, and take care of those things over which I had control. I made sure that any unforeseen disasters that I could prevent would not occur: I knew where I was presenting, knew when I had to be there, had my computer charged, had a backup on paper, had a plan if the piano didn’t arrive, and so forth.
I also meditate and exercise on a regular basis. I try to watch my diet, too, as overindulgence in sweets or salt can make me feel worse. Most important, I try to understand what I’m going through as it happens so I can deal with it.
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 manage five teachers, and teach thirty students. My approach to each is slightly different. My teachers need minimal feedback and lots of clear guidelines so that they can independently do their job in a way that keeps my management tasks to a minimum. I tell them what I need them to do, correct them in as neutral a way as possible when they miss something, and remain positive and calm.
I am also positive, calm and neutral with my students. However, they’re paying me to have a plan for their learning and growth, and to give concrete feedback on a regular basis regarding their progress. I have to gauge the most effective way to give each student feedback based on their learning preferences, their innate abilities and, if they’re minors, the expectations of their parents.
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?
People rely on that feedback. It’s a little like being on a boat. If the water is choppy and the captain is incompetent, no one’s going to enjoy the ride and may not even make the journey. Feedback for some people can uproot them, revise what they think they know and are. That can be very upsetting, especially if you’ve invested a lot of time, money or effort into a certain assumption about your abilities and aptitude. If your feedback isn’t honest, you’re essentially giving them a false impression of the ground under their feet, which is cruel. Even if it’s well-meant, someone will use your false feedback to make decisions, and the results can be disastrous.
Direct feedback is a mixed bag. Not everyone wants or needs blunt, direct criticism. I prefer to be neutral, which is a way of explaining your perception of a situation that removes judgement and allows the other person to save face. “I see you’ve put the ceiling beams in this way. The manual said they are to go in that way. Do you think it’s going to matter? You don’t? I’m not so sure, and I’d prefer if you’d please do the job according to the manual’s instructions.” At no point is the speaker criticizing the listener. Instead the speaker is pointing out a potential hazard, seeking the listener’s perspective first, then expressing a preference (which, in an employee-situation, is presumably to be followed without question from then on). If this style of address doesn’t work the first time, it’s possible to be more direct without judgement. “Do you remember the conversation we had last time, and the preference I indicated to you? Is there a reason you chose not to follow my expectations? Thanks for telling me. I expect you to follow my preferences while you’re working for me. If you don’t agree with some of my expectations, you’re welcome to let me know now and we can decide how to move forward. If you don’t want to follow any of my expectations, please let me know that too so we can decide how to end our working relationship.” At all times, the listener is empowered to communicate and make choices. The listener, in essence, is being asked to decide whether or not they want to continue to work for the speaker! The discussion is not about who is right and who is wrong, who is smart and who is stupid, who is good and who is bad. It’s about whether the worker-supervisor relationship is viable in this circumstance, and what to do if it isn’t. This is direct and honest feedback which is not demeaning, humiliating or provocative.
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.
- State the situation in concrete terms. “The beams are backwards.”
- If there is an issue which requires discussion, seek to understand how the issue came about from the recipient’s perspective. “Did you know they were backwards? Was that a choice?”
- Paraphrase or restate the recipient’s point of view so they know they’ve been heard and understood. If you’ve misunderstood, continue to work towards understanding their point of view. “Let me see if I understand. You put the first one in backwards and decided that it would be best to do the rest the same way to keep it consistent?”
- State your preference and expectations. “I’d prefer you redid the job according to the manual. I can give you extra time to get it fixed. From now on, I’d prefer you follow the manual, even if you have to back up on a job.”
- Get a sense for whether the recipient will be able to meet those expectations, and express the consequences for a failure to meet them. “Are you going to be able to make that work? If not, let me know now so I can find someone else to do the job.”
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 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?
In my experience, it’s best to use simple, concrete language without a lot of nuance or sarcasm even in person. This makes it easier to adapt it to an e-mail. An e-mail with criticism should be neutral in tone, stick to the most important point, and offer an action-step or a path forward that both parties can utilize to continue the conversation.
When to give the feedback would depend on the situation. If waiting would cause further problems, such as if something done incorrectly could burn out of control, literally or figuratively, then it’s best to deal with it immediately. On the other hand, if there’s no hurry, a cool-down period is advisable. Waiting until the next day will give the recipient of the feedback time to process the error internally and will make them less defensive.
Set, regular feedback is fine as long as it’s a part of the work-relationship from the outset and the giver has the recipient’s buy-in. The recipient should know it’s coming, know how to shoot for the best possible results (sometimes a checklist given ahead of time can be helpful if the feedback is going to be specific and certain specific expectations are in play), and be given an opportunity to improve anything that needs improving. Nobody wants to have negative feedback hanging over them like a stain.
How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?
A good boss has effective employees. The relationship of the boss to the employees so often determines the quality of the employees to the clients. When it doesn’t, it’s often because the employees are taking up the slack from poor leadership and being leaders for themselves (or not), and you’re going to see a big disparity between various employees, rather than a uniformly effective staff.
My favorite principal really empowered us. You had a sense that she was interested in who you were and what you were doing, and also had faith in your abilities so that she didn’t need to interfere. When there were disputes among the teachers, she asked us to work it out ourselves, if possible, before she “brought down the hammer,” as she said! So she was there if we needed her, and she held us accountable, but mostly she got out of our way.
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. 🙂
I work every day to move people to empower themselves and others. When people study with me, I want them to become good self-teachers. Then they can empower themselves, inspire and assist others, and increase happiness wherever they are.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I took the Dale Carnegie classes, I learned “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” That seemed like madness to me at first, and it took a long time to really parse the power of the idea. Once I understood how you can still get what you want with more neutral feedback, and that you might even get more of it, I began working to incorporate it into my life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please subscribe at www.grantparkarts.com and www.acole.net You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. I also have a YouTube Channel with amazing interviews of creative and artistic people who are changing the world at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqW6xtXhKz526BVttVhz-yg/videos?view_as=subscriber
Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.
It was my pleasure!