Ands Not Buts

I like this design but we should look at…

The brief looks great but you need to add…

You handled yourself well in the meeting but you forgot….

Have you ever received feedback this way?  A quick compliment before a “but” leads to the real point of the communication.  Do you give feedback this way?

I do, too often.  A friend reminded me recently when we were reviewing creative for an upcoming campaign.  The first sentence is basically a direct quote from me.

The downside of that approach is it means the manager giving the feedback has moved directly to problem solving mode.  Rather than taking the time to truly understand the intent of the person who did the work, or properly acknowledging the 90% of the work that is right, the manager is only looking at what’s missing.

Delivering feedback consistently in this manner, no matter how well intentioned or politely delivered, is a sure-fire way to demotivate teams.  Teams and individuals are inspired to do great work when they feel their contributions and ideas are heard and valued.  The best teams welcome and thrive on constructive feedback, but it needs to be delivered in way that expands horizons and opens doors to new ways of thinking.

It turns out small word choices can make all the difference.  “And” is a much more powerful word than “but”.

“And” unites.  “And” builds on what comes before.  “And” expands an idea to make it better.

“But” divides.  “But” diminishes, or sometimes completely dismisses, ideas.  “But” focuses on the problem rather than the potential.

Leaders who say things like, “This idea helps expand our business by doing….and gives us an opportunity to consider…” demonstrate solidarity with their teams.  They acknowledge the potential of the work and demonstrate a willingness to partner with their teams to expand it.  As I look back over my career, the leaders who inspired the best work from me followed this practice for giving feedback. 

None of this is to say that managers should not tell their teams when ideas are off base.  It’s disingenuous and counterproductive to mislead people if they are heading down a wrong path.  However managers managers should take the extra time, often it’s only a few minutes, to ensure they acknowledge the work and understand how the team arrived at this recommendation.  Such an approach harnesses the capabilities of the entire team to solve the problem.  It’s a much more productive and effective way to lead.

So remember (as I hope to do), the next time you give feedback, think “and,” not “but.”

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