Please Don’t Be Offended, but I Think You’re an Idiot

By Koko Wadeson

Ah, feedback. Life is unbearable if you cannot speak your mind, but in our everyone’s-a-winner culture anything short of ebullient praise is viewed as an affront. And so, to show that you’re not a glass-half-empty sort—you see the positive stuff, too!—you start with a few compliments before slipping in the unpleasant news. But you don’t want to end on a bad note so you close with something upbeat—another compliment or some hearty encouragement. Congratulations. You just served a “shit sandwich.” In more refined circles it’s called a “praise sandwich.” Either way, it’s a classic rookie mistake. Your protégé will take one look at this questionable offering and either see only the praise or only the criticism. You end up with the status quo or a new enemy.

(And in these wild and wooly times you don’t want an enemy. Best case: low-level passive aggressive retribution. Worst case: a digital smear campaign against you—that inexplicably goes viral. But I digress…) Negative feedback is not more palatable when it is preceded by a warm fuzzy: “You did a great job, really. But you don’t seem to understand the concept of a budget.” Even worse is verbally teeing up with a qualifier calculated to (a) distance yourself from the turd (“I hate to tell you, but…”), which often sounds disingenuous or (b) manage the response (“Don’t freak out, but…”), which usually has the opposite effect. Rather than feel gently enlightened, the recipient of your mixed message will either be confused or think you’re an asshole.

So “constructive criticism” may be an oxymoron, but feedback really can help people work better. The secret is knowing when to focus on the positive and when to eyeball the negative. If the recipient is a novice, go for praise. Beginners feel less confident and need encouragement. Emphasize strengths and successes, but also be clear about what your protégé should to do improve. Offer suggestions that build on the positive with “and” or “what if” statements—and avoid the dreaded “but” bombs. If the recipient of your feedback is past the novice stage, you can zero in on weaknesses and mistakes. Advanced practitioners generally want to know what they can do to improve. Don’t overdo it, though; even eager beavers can be deflated by criticism.

(The worst kind of boor, I think we can agree, is the self-proclaimed “expert” who is delusional about their skills and resistant to change. Feedback of any kind is wasted on this lot, and they should be avoided at all costs. But I digress again…) Learning how to give appropriate and timely feedback is vital. Feedback gives the recipient an opportunity to ask questions and investigate obstacles—before it’s too late. Understanding how to accept feedback is equally important. Knowing what you need do to progress is empowering. Stop being an idiot. It’s that simple.