After my boss made a presentation to staff that fell flat, he came into my office, closed the door, and asked me to be honest with him. “What did I do wrong?” he asked.
We weren’t exactly friends, so I hesitated.
“Come on, tell the truth,” he said. “I can take it.”
Since he asked for help, I told him what he’d done wrong. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. It was like a train wreck. His mouth got tight. I stopped but then tried to dig myself out of the hole, and don’t remember what I said after that, but I could tell that whatever it was, I made things worse. His face turned red and he said, “thanks so much” and left my office.
Since then, he’s been polite with all of us, but you can cut the tension with a knife. I feel like this is my fault, but he asked. Is there anything I can or should do?
Movie giant Sam Goldwyn once told his employees, “I want you to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me and MGM, even if it means losing your job.” Your boss did something similar when she asked you what she did wrong. You fell into the “only the bad news” trap, and it closed on both of you.
Context and tact are the sugar that helps the honesty medicine go down. Here’s what you could have done, and here’s what you can do now. You could have set the context first. Here’s how. You could have said, “I think it’s brave of you to ask what you did wrong. Most of us want it to just be over when we try something that doesn’t quite work. So I’ll tell you what, as long as you let me start by telling the other part of the truth. That I admire willingness to look at how you could have improved a project and that you’re a good boss overall.”
Of course, it’s easier to think of saying something like the above in hindsight. Which means you’ll most often need to do repair work by saying it after the fact. But first, consider a few truths about communication.
Wording is everything. When someone asks you a question, it’s not “do you answer” but “how do you answer.” “When I look at your face, time stands still” conveys the same logical facts that “you have a face that could stop a clock” does, but comes across differently. If your best friend asks, “What do you think of my hairdo?” and you answer “it looks terrible,” you dash her spirits. If you say, “I like your earlier style better; this one doesn’t do you justice,” you answer truthfully, but leave your friend’s ego in one piece.
Next, negative comments cancel out positive remarks if given in a one-to-one ratio. If I say “you’re very nice but …” you hear the “but” more loudly than what precedes it. This means if you want the person you’re talking with to hear the positive part of what you say, you need to offer more positive than negative statements. Further, we believe specific positives more easily than general ones. “I really like how you concisely outlined all seven variables on one page” has greater impact than “great report.”
Finally, positive doesn’t mean smarmy. Most of us can see through fake positives, so don’t waste your energy or others’ time by saying what you don’t mean just to have something nice to say.
If you want to fix your current situation, stop by your boss’s office and say you messed up. Explain you answered his specific question but left too much out. Tell him either what he did right in the presentation or what he generally does right as a boss. Be honest and specific. Finally, tell him you thought he was gutsy to ask for feedback and that you greatly admire him for that.
© 2020, Lynne Curry
Lynne Curry is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016) and “Solutions” (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.