Let’s stop using the F-word at work and start using the E-word
In my first job at the age of 16 (as a movie theatre usher, if you must know), the manager of the theatre was a foul-mouthed tyrant. During my interview, he was sitting in an adjacent office letting off a stream of profanities that made me blush. His linguistic effluent included the dreaded “F-word” along with a few dozen others uttered in frequent rotation.
A few weeks after I was hired (and nearly quit out of fear), the manager was terminated because of his unwillingness to stop using foul language at work. The lesson to everyone was clear: stop using the F-word in the workplace.
There is another F-word that we need to stop using in the workplace, one that causes nearly as many hurt feelings. Unlike the four-letter variety, this is an eight-letter F-word: feedback.
Now, please understand that I think feedback is a valuable thing. I’m not advocating that we stop providing feedback. But I do think the word itself suffers from being defined in multiple, often contradictory ways.
More than 15 years ago when I was training new managers for the same chain of movie theatres, I had to cover a module on giving feedback. “Give two bits of good feedback for every bit of bad feedback” was the general rule these managers learned.
And that was the problem: something that was inherently neutral was infused with multiple meanings. Feedback could now be “good” or “bad” and thus a fear of it arose. “Can I give you some feedback?” came to be as inviting an offer as “Can I give you a good smack about the ears?”
Because the neutral nature of “feedback” has been slandered so badly, I think there is just one solution: let’s stop using the word. Let’s remove the stinger by not even mentioning the bee.
I encountered a suggestion that we use the word “feed-forward” instead, but that is such an obvious if well-meaning marketing stunt that it should be dismissed promptly.
The solution, I think, is to shift our focus entirely from the F-word to the E-word: “expectations”. “Expectations” is a positive word, an optimistic word, a forward-looking word. Most importantly, changing the word also changes our approach to communicating.
As leaders, we often learn that we should give feedback, but much less attention is paid to setting clear expectations. Surely it is more effective to be clear about what is expected in the first place, than to provide feedback about unclear objectives that were not met?
I propose that we start at the beginning, by talking with our teams about expectations – ours and theirs. Talk about what success would look like, what obstacles they might encounter, what resources they would need, and what the benefit of meeting those expectations would be.
Then along the way, we would talk about how our teams are doing relative to expectations. Talk about whether their plans need to be adjusted, whether the obstacles have arisen, and whether the resources need to be shifted.
Finally, as success is reached, we could continue to talk about how the teams did relative to expectations. Talk about how success was achieved, talk about what lessons were learned, and talk about what we can do next to build on our success.
Most of these conversations would be based on asking great questions of our team members rather than telling them what we thought – although it would be okay to provide our perspective to fill in any missing pieces, after they had shared their perspectives and ideas. We would give feedback, but wouldn’t use the dreaded F-word.
The benefits of shifting from the F-word to the E-word would be numerous: not only would we stop using a word that causes misunderstanding from its very first utterance, we would engage our team members into a collaborative and very future-focused approach to communication. This would lead to fewer misunderstandings, better overall results, and a more energised team.
Expectations are powerful things. Built together with your team members, they become shared expectations – common goals to which we can all contribute and, when we reflect on the process we took to achieve them, things about which we can feel a sense of satisfaction and pride.
So how about it? Are you willing to remove the F-word from your vocabulary?