Don’t Be a Foolish Leader

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Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Prov. 26:4-5

Out of college, I served as a Capitol Hill staffer. Senior aides attend hearings, write speeches, and whisper in the congressman's ear. Junior aides answer phones and letters from constituents.

Most reasonable people don't often call their congressman. The vast majority of inbound comments—based on my years of observation—come from small handfuls of time-rich conspiracy theorists and anger management relapses.

Initially, my job was just to write down what the constituents said. And then I got promoted … and had to formulate dignified answers to absurd questions. My job was to answer fools according to their folly.

My Life as a Fool Answerer

One writer wanted the pronunciation of “w” changed from “double you” to “dub,” which would result in amazing efficiencies since every Internet address requires us to say “double you” three times.

Another writer was incensed by President Clinton's deposition in the Lewinsky scandal. Not that the deposition occurred, or that he didn't like the President's answers. His concern was that President Clinton, during the deposition, was drinking Diet Dr Pepper from a can.

“I don't understand, sir. He drank soda from a can?”

“Yes. That's uncouth!”

The letter I wrote on behalf of the congressman began like this: “I have forwarded your concerns about President Clinton's soft drink consumption methods to the White House.”

Every commentator who looks at Proverbs 26:4-5 comes to the conclusion that they don't actually contradict. Instead, they lay out two ways of dealing with people, and call on the reader to be wise enough to know the difference. I wasn't.

My Wrongheaded Approach to Reviews

Performance reviews provide a chance to influence people's careers. It's a privilege. To a fault, I try to encourage my people. I'm on the grace end of the grace-truth spectrum.

To offer more directly truthful feedback, I developed a rule of thumb: If I'm not uncomfortable delivering a review, then I am not providing enough truth.

I became a "verse 5" guy—deliver tough feedback. This approach worked, until it didn't. Paging verse 4.

Tough Feedback That Worked

I explained to one impressive guy on my team that his impressiveness tended to intimidate the younger staff, creating distance.

“You have the problem of the beautiful shy girl at school. If she's ugly and shy, people just think she's shy. But if she's beautiful and shy, people think she's stuck up.”

He embraced the feedback, became affirming toward the team, and developed great rapport.

Another time, I managed a brilliant woman who had a little giggle that erupted when she was uncomfortable. I pointed out the giggle and the damage it did to her authority. We worked on it and it changed. Her demeanor and posture seemed to shift and her reputation grew.

Tough Feedback That Didn't Work

The two people above embraced feedback. They were wise. I didn't build an air-tight case. I pointed out an observation and they were self-aware enough to act on it.

But one of my direct reports had a negative attitude. My boss noted it, other employees noted it, my right-hand guy noted it. His attitude problem was obvious to everyone but himself. Following verse 5, in an otherwise awesome review, I pointed out this one improvement area.

Memo to self: People who have bad attitudes tend to have bad attitudes about being told that they have bad attitudes.

This seems obvious in retrospect.

I was asked to verify this feedback with examples and quotes from others. I was hauled in to Human Resources to defend the review. HR interviewed my team to see how many people agreed with me. And so on.

The Lesson

Whether you are a manager or an employee, there's a time for truth. Discern whether the person to whom you need to deliver the news is self-aware enough to accept it. If not, question whether you really need to deliver it. If you really do, be sure to gather enough examples and hard evidence to make your case compelling to the person who needs to hear it.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups

  • Who do you work with that can handle constructive criticism? What critiques have you offered that they have embraced?
  • Who do you work with that cannot handle constructive criticism? What critiques might you need to offer, and how should you approach those?
  • For more articles about how to approach performance reviews, read Glynn Young on Bad Performance Reviews and J. B. Wood on When Is Negative Feedback Too Negative?