Since you have never experienced it in your career, you may be surprised to learn that some people regularly get criticized for their work performance. It can come in a casual tete-a-tete with a manager, or in a formal review with six HR drones standing by to help the battered employee to their feet after the pummeling has ended. But whether it is called feedback, guidance or just everyday abuse, the employees who are on the receiving end of this mental waterboarding definitely feel the pain. And even if the list of foul-ups, missteps and workplace boo-boos does not end up with a warning or a firing, the pain remains — sometimes days, weeks and even years later.
But that’s about to change.
According to The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Feintzeig, in her recent article, “Everything is Awesome! Why You Can’t Tell Employees They’re Doing a Bad Job,” negativity is being sucked out of the standard bag of stupid manager tricks. “Fearing they’ll crush employees’ confidence and erode performance, employers are asking managers to ease up on harsh treatment,” reports Feintzeig. The new mantra at workplaces is “accentuate the positive.”
If you suspect that many managers will have trouble trading in their cudgel for a lollypop, you’re right. “Lots of businesses remain devoted to toughness,” Feintzeig writes, citing the harsh outlook of Netflix chief executive, Reed Hastings, who “likens the firm to a pro sports team, not a Little League squad.”
If Netflix is a pro-sports team, Boston Consulting Group is T-ball. Adopting the think-positive approach, the bosses at BCG “now dole out frequent praise, urge employees to celebrate small victories and focus performance reviews around particular workers strengths — instead of dwelling on why he flubbed a client presentation.”
To me, this sounds absolutely delightful. Wouldn’t you love to have your small victories celebrated? Just imagine your manager showing up with a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates. “Congratulations,” she would say. “You came to work this morning!” (Of course, for you, actually coming to work is a big victory. Perhaps a more realistic victory would be staying at work until 5 p.m., instead of sneaking out the fire door after lunch.)
If some employers are having trouble embracing the new, all-positive-all-the-time approach, some employees are actually unnerved by the lack of negativity. “Tough feedback sometimes motivates people better than praise does,” insist management experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. “Employees crave critiques more than gold stars.”
Unsurprisingly, one reason for the new positivity is the new millennial workforce. These fickle young people, whose baby-boomer parents spoiled them rotten, do not relate well to managers who are simply rotten. That’s why the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, who hired nearly 9,000 of these sensitive flowers from universities in 2014, “asks managers to hold ‘career outlook’ discussions about employees’ futures at the firm, rather than reviews centered on where they dropped the ball over the past year.”
Frankly, I don’t think this is such a radical idea. Your managers have frequently discussed your “career outlook.” I believe it involved your moving into a refrigerator box under the freeway and living on surplus government cheese.
VMware, Inc., a software company, “asks employees to suggest ideas for their own improvement in the future, rather than review past performance. No judging, rating or critiquing is allowed.”
I don’t know about you, but that kind of positivity would freak me out. When your boss unleashes a torrent of angry criticism, it stings, but, at least, you know where you stand. If I had a boss who listened intently to my suggestion that the best way for me to improve my performance is for the company to double my salary, slash my workload and ship my job — and me — to an island in the South Pacific, I wouldn’t know what to expect, except, maybe, a desk chair thrown at my head.
Still, I want to lavish praise on the management of VMware, where, Feintzeig reports, they will continue “borrowing techniques from marriage counselors.” This sounds a wonderful idea, unless, of course, you’re one of those twisted individuals who really want to know what management thinks they need to do to get ahead in their careers.
Which reminds me — though I wouldn’t feel comfortable working in a cotton-candy dream world of positivity, it doesn’t mean management should give up on the new, kind and gentle approach. If employees demand constant criticism for minor infractions, they can always get married.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.