Professor Robert Baron of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute interviewed 108 employees in a large food-processing company about their perceptions about corporate conflict.   There were 14 possible sources of conflict.  Management’s morale-deflating criticism was ranked as a more powerful source of conflict than competition over limited financial resources or territorial disputes.  (1988).

The way management communicates negative feedback is powerful.  It can stifle innovative ideas just at the very time the company most requires innovative thinking.

On the other hand, managements’ failure to be sufficiently critical of new ideas can a problem.

Consider the case of Xerox’ fabled Paolo Alto Research Center (PARC). Many of the most innovative ideas in personal computing came out of that center.  And yet it failed to achieve meaningful financial results. Others, like Steve Jobs, took some of PARC’s great ideas and turned them into money-making devices.  Why did PARC fail as a source of revenue for Xerox?

The problem at PARC was that the culture focused too much on innovation.  There was not enough criticism about how to generate revenue. 

In other words, how can leaders strike the right balance between encouraging innovation and yet be critical enough to focus the team on useful results?

Below are three suggestions we have made to our clients.

 Take the “You” Out of “Your Idea.”

One useful approach is creating a Score Card for ideas to prevent leaders from making global condemnations about the idea presenters.  Examples of global condemnations would include “This is awful” or “You are wasting time.”

This Score Card can be as simple as the following:  “On a Scale of Zero to 10 for Creativity I would score it ‘7.”  On a Scale of zero to 10 for making money for the company I would score it ‘2.’”  Is there a way to move the idea so that the chances of making money are at least a 6?” 

Notice that the word “you” never comes up.

A Score Card formula allows team members to understand the key factors that you use to evaluate new ideas.  You want a consistent framework.  Because of its consistency, you avoid the condemnation, “Is there NOTHING that can please this boss??!!”

How You Respond to Bad Ideas Sets a Framework for the Future of Good Ideas:

Those who work in R&D-centric industries like pharmaceuticals know that the vast majority of new ideas deserve to die.   But the learning that takes place in dealing with bad ideas paves the way for innovative and practical future approaches.

For example, we knew one leader whose response to bad ideas would be an icy stare for three seconds, no comment, and then ignoring the individual for the duration of the meeting.  Given this reaction, why would a subordinate risk getting a reaction like this by presenting a novel approach?

As a leader, you do not have to accept bad ideas but you can still express gratitude to the person who presented the idea.  Your objective e is to fertilize the soil for future ideas.

We recommend to our clients that they use a script called “Here’s What I Like and Here’s What Needs to Be Worked On.”

For example:

“What I like about this idea is that it looks at an old problem in our industry in a radically new way.  What needs to be improved would be the practical steps to get customers to change long-held habits?  What are our costs in doing this?

Notice that the word “you” never appears.  The focus is on the idea.

Forcing yourself to respond to ideas you hate in a scripted fashion like this helps you avoid the kind of global condemnation that results in your office being known as the place where good ideas go to die.

If you look at a proposal and cannot find ONE thing about it you like, we suggest avoid having a feedback session.  Give yourself some time to reflect on the idea.  Your initial reaction may be wrong. 

Outsourcing Your Skepticism:

A third structure for giving feedback to innovative ideas is to outsource your skepticism.   There are two ways of outsourcing skepticism.

The first is to institutionalize the “Devil’s Advocate” on your team.  This means that another person on the team is given a specific role to play in that session.  And that role is to be the most skeptical human being on the planet. 

Change the person to be Devil’s Advocate at each meeting.

A second way to outsource criticism is to destroy the hub and spoke communication pattern you may have created.

In a hub and spoke pattern, the boss is the hub and subordinates go to the boss with new ideas for rejection or approval.  They don’t necessarily need to discuss the idea with colleagues in other areas of the company. 

Hub and spoke enlarges the importance of the leader but increases the silo mentality of team members.

Consider the following:  require that before ideas are submitted to your office, at least two peer level colleagues outside employee’s specific technical area review and comment on the idea.  

You have outsourced criticism and made a dent in the silo mentality.

Your Critical Role as Leader.

These proposals center on replacing spontaneous reaction with a structured approach to managing criticism.

A spontaneous reaction may devolve into implied insults against the person who presented the idea or a global condemnation of the person. 

It may not be your intention, but this type of negative feedback kills innovation.  Avoid spontaneity.  Consider using a structured approach.  We have presented three approaches for your consideration.

The suggestions made here are designed to create a climate that balances innovation and criticism.

Earlier in this piece we mentioned Professor Robert Baron.  In the 1988 study he had 106 undergraduates receive “destructive” criticism for a task they were asked to complete.  “Destructive” criticism meant that the feedback was general (“this is awful.”) and the attribution of poor performance was due to personal defect (“You seem to be lacking attention to detail.”).

Having been exposed to destructive/general criticism, the students were asked to do another task.  On the subsequent task students set lower goals than subjects who received no feedback or positive feedback.

This reaction is so common in business: thoughtless criticism of individuals leading to a culture of fear.

You want to be known as the occupant of the office where even bad ideas are treated with respect.  Those who strive to be innovative deserve your thanks even if the ideas themselves are rejected.

Now that you have read our ideas, do you have any critical feedback for us???!!!!

References:

Baron, Robert A. (1988). “Negative effects of destructive criticism: impact on conflict, self-efficacy, and task performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(2) 199.

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