Don’t Confuse Feedback with Fussing

Posted January 9, 2020

Charlene is a good manager, but not a great one.  She knows the business (furniture manufacturing) inside and out, can run pretty much any piece of equipment in the plant, and has an uncanny grasp of materials, costs, and personnel.  So what keeps her from being great?  Her preferred method of motivating is negative.

Charlene is like a lot of managers and leaders; she wants to get the most from her team and her colleagues, but her efforts to motivate tend to have the opposite effect.  Her style of motivating is best described as “fussing.”  When one of her team members made a mistake, Charlene pointed it out (good so far), then chided the employee for making the mistake (not so good), and proceeded to hurl a series of emotion-laden statements at the employee in order to reinforce the importance of not making mistakes (bad).  Worst of all, Charlene concluded by saying, “I really can’t trust you with anything, can I?”  Ouch.

Why Fussing Doesn’t Work

Feedback is an incredibly important aspect of healthy work cultures, but when done poorly feedback can become mere fussing.  Fussing doesn’t work for motivating others toward positive change for a number of reasons.

First, fussing fuels survival mode.  The negativity of fussing triggers the feedback recipient into a negative emotional cycle – or what is sometimes called “fight or flight.”  When the feedback recipient hears bitterness, biting sarcasm, and downright ridicule, his emotional plumbing is flooded with emotions, hormones and stimulants designed to protect him from harm.  This moves him out of learning and growth mode and into survival mode.

When we’re in survival mode, we cannot hear what’s being shared, no matter how truthful, helpful, or timely the message is.  Even the most accurate feedback falls on deaf ears because the only thing the feedback recipient hears is his own voice telling him to protect himself.

Second, fussing results in resistance.  Even though you intend your feedback for good, fussing causes the feedback recipient to automatically reject the feedback.  Imagine a stranger ran up to you with an angry look on his face and tried to physically force a $100 bill into your hand.  You would not coolly and calmly examine the bill and then willingly accept it.  No, instead you would resist.  This is same dynamic that is at play when we use fussing to motivate.

Charlene’s team member made a mistake, but rather than provide insight and actual help to him, Charlene essentially tried to force the change upon him and he did the natural thing in response: he resisted.

Third, fussing diminishes trust.  With pretty much every human interaction, we ask ourselves some version of a simple question, “Does this person have my best interests in mind or are they using me for their own gain?”  Fussing screams a clear answer to the feedback recipient: “I do not have your best interests in mind, I do not care for you as a person, and I only value you for what you can do to help me.  If you’re of no help to me, then you are of no value.”  That answer plunges a huge hole in the side of the trust tank, draining the relationship of any belief that the relationship is mutual and positive.

Diminished trust not only prevents the feedback recipient from hearing and acting on the immediate feedback, it also conditions him to frame any future feedback as a negative encounter, thus increasing the likeliness that future feedback will trigger survival mode and resistance.

The Truths Behind Fussing

Charlene didn’t think she was fussing at her team member.  In her own mind, she was just stating the facts, declaring expectations, and highlighting the importance of getting things right.  She failed to own the fact that she was fussing because she, like most of us, cast her actions in the best possible light.  Our coaching session helped peel back the onion, so to speak.  Doing so helped her see that her intentions were not nearly as pure and innocent as she was telling herself.  Slowly, she came to accept three facts.

First, her intentions were not nearly as innocent and healthy as she’d told herself they were.  The team member’s mistake was costly and, truth be told, Charlene used the feedback time to seek some retribution.

Second, her fussing was more about Charlene than the team member.  The team member did not deserve or warrant fussing.  He deserved feedback and clear feedback would have been very appropriate.  But spiking the feedback with scorn, sarcasm, and sassiness was about Charlene, not the team member.  Charlene was carrying around stress, living out of balance, and displacing her anger with others onto the team member.  She was also selfish.  Those are hard truths to own, but to her credit Charlene did just that.

Third, her team member’s response to the fussing was appropriate.  Charlene came into our coaching session complaining that the team member needed thicker skin; she left the coaching session admitting that she needed to put away the knives and find better feedback tools.  One of the most important tools Charlene needed to pick up and use was asking for forgiveness.

Get Your Fussing to Zero

When coaches say, “Coach the person, not the problem,” what we mean is this: help the client see herself in the situation and help her consider that she is the variable that can most readily change and most likely needs to change.  When we do this, we invite powerful transformation and the coaching process not only solves problems, but also grows people.  At StrongLead, most of our coaching is about growing people who can solve problems (and create fewer problems).  To improve your feedback, start with yourself. 

The next time you have some feedback, dial down the fussing.  Try to get it all the way to zero by asking these questions