BLUF: What is an appropriate response to a direct who says that they will "try to do better next time" when given feedback?

I have a direct who is trying so hard to do the right thing, that they are often oblivious to what they are actually responsible for. They've told me that they don't want to agree that they "will change that or do better next time", because they think any change is outside of their control. If they can't be 100% sure they can do something they will only commit to trying.

The direct has very high standards. To them saying "they will do better next time" is very black and white. You either "deliver 100% on a promise" or you are a failure. There is no middle ground. Therefore, they are not willing to make a commitment to improve. However, saying you will try and then failing repeatedly with no improvement is perfectly OK. 

I'm well aware of the logical fallacies inherent in the above. Systemic feedback may be the answer in time. The question is: Until then, what do I say to the direct when I'm giving them feedback? How do I get them to commit to doing rather than trying? 

The general situation reminds me of a situation from years ago. A friend, in a sincere effort to be gentlemanly, would hold an umbrella for me as we walked in the rain. From his point of view the best position for the umbrella meant that it poked me in the eye repeatedly. He was trying so hard to do the right thing, that despite anything I said he did not understand that he was inadvertently hurting me. If I just simply shifted my position to avoid getting poked, he would reposition the umbrella to poke me in the eye again. Unlike Mark's umbrella story, I never got mad, but it hurt like heck. I never did find a good way to help the friend see things (literally) from my point of view because in his mind he was just trying to do the right thing. 


donm's picture
Training Badge

I don't think you've defined the problem well enough for us, and probably not well enough for you, yourself, to have an effective feedback drive by.

What is the direct doing that is causing "the right thing" not to be done? Feedback is about behavior, not results or intentions.

You have not given us enough information to offer advice on your situation. I think if you can define the faulty behavior more adequately, you can tailor the feedback appropriately. Remember the negative feedback model:

"Hey, can I give you some feedback?" Sure.

"When you do this behavior, it causes this problem. Do you think you can stop doing this? (Or, what do you think you can do differently?)"

Yes. (Or, Maybe if I did it this way, instead, it would work better.")

Is this how you're applying it? The direct's actual faulty behavior must be the subject of negative feedback. Conversely, have you cited the direct's correct behavior for positive feedback? When the "right thing" is done, or is more closely approached, pick out the behavioral difference that caused the better result, and give the positive feedback.

... Sure.  "When you do it this way, this result is better. Thanks."

A faulty behavior is diametrically opposed to the correct behavior, and either the direct can deliver 100% or not on changing the faulty behavior, fitting his style of "all or none" appropriately.

Doris_O's picture

Thanks DonM. When the model is applied as directed, the response is not "yes" or "sure", it's "I'll try, but I can't promise."  The behavior can be just about anything: checking email throughout a meeting, missing a deadline, sending out the wrong information, and so on. My question is not about a specific behavior, as the response is pretty much the same. In terms of your generalized model above:

Me: Do you think you can stop doing this?
DR: "I'll try"

Me: What do you think you can do differently?

DR: "I tried my best. I'm not sure what I could do differently."

I’m having difficulty concisely articulating what actually was said, but it boils down to the direct trying to shift accountability for any failure to me, while retaining only the successes. The direct’s commitment to "try" is intended to avoid their (perceived) failure if they don’t achieve 100%. If a direct commits to improving and only achieves 50%, I don’t see that as failure. I see a 50% improvement, whereas this direct only sees failure.  

My perspective is that trying should be the result of the commitment to improve, not the commitment itself (maybe I'm wrong about this). The direct will commit only to trying out of a fear of failure. When I can get them past the fear and stop "trying", they are just brilliant.

mattpalmer's picture

I think the question, "Do you think you can stop doing this?" is a *terrible* one to ask (sorry DonM).  Answering "yes" to that question isn't committing to changing behaviour, it's asking for a prediction.  The question to ask is, "Can you do that differently next time?"

The first time, you could be generous and interpret "I'll try" as a "yes" -- it's certainly committing to trying to change a behaviour.  The second time you give feedback on the same behaviour, though, if the answer isn't "yes", you can gently correct and ask the question again, like so:

You: "Can you do that differently next time?"

Direct: "I'll try"

Y: "I didn't ask if you can *try* to do it differently, I asked if you *can* do it differently?"

Be very careful not to come off as harsh, sarcastic, or anything like that (I find it really hard not to put a sarcastic spin on things), but you definitely need to avoid letting your direct off the hook.  The next phase might look like this:

D: "I don't know if I can definitely do it, but I'll try my best"

Y: "I never doubt that you always do your best, but I feel that this behaviour is entirely within your control, and I'd like to know that next time you definitely will do this differently.  Can you commit to that (for me)?"

(I put "for me" in parentheses because if this is a high S, adding that in there will help; otherwise, probably not so much)

You could really get meta on this direct, and start giving feedback on their need to say "I'll try" instead of a straightforward "yes".  That might sound something like, "When you say you'll try to change, it doesn't reassure me that things *will* change, and what I'm looking for is for things to change".

When handling the "What can you do differently?" response, simply ask them to commit to thinking about it and letting you know in 15 minutes what they can do differently, like this:

Y: "What could you do differently?"

D: "I tried my best. I'm not sure what I could do differently."

Y: "Can you think about the situation, and come back to me at (fifteen minutes from now) with some ideas?"

D: "Yes" (hopefully...)

If they don't come back to you, feedback time!

As far as your statement that "I see a 50% improvement, whereas this direct only sees failure", I wonder if you're not giving enough affirming feedback on (partial) successes.  Also, it might be worth having a talk, completely separate from feedback, about what you said about "I don't see that as failure" -- it's possible your direct worries that you're judging their results harshly, and they've been conditioned by previous bosses that 'tis better to not try than to try and fail.

donm's picture
Training Badge

'"Do you think you can stop doing this?" is a *terrible* one to ask (sorry DonM).'

You're right. That should have been worded differently, but my main thrust was to insure the question was "yes or no." Doris is letting the direct off without a yes-or-no answer to a yes-or-no question. I actually tell my directs "The first word in answer to a yes-or-no question has to be 'yes' or 'no.' After that, you can expand if you like." I would never let my direct answer, "I'll try" without a follow up of "What do you plan to try to do differently?"

The first-word rule was not given in a feedback situation. It was given when the question was similar to "Did you complete the assigned task yesterday?" The last thing I need at that point is a long, rambling discourse of the trials and tribulations that were encountered along the way to finally, by the skin of their teeth, finish the task just in time to meet the schedule.

In my defense, I give negative feedback very rarely. I'll have to ask forgiveness for being bad at it.

mattpalmer's picture

It's lovely not having to give negative feedback very often, isn't it... (grin)

It is important to set the ground rules for yes-or-no questions, definitely -- as you say, you don't want a story, you want an answer (welcome, my fellow high-D!)  However, not any ol' yes-or-no question will do -- imagine if the question asked was "Can you try to do that differently?".  Boy howdy would the problem direct say yes to that one.  It *has* to be a question which absolutely requires, with no wiggle room, the direct's clear commitment to change their behaviour.

The purpose of this isn't to "catch them out", either.  It is a self-motivation tactic.  When someone looks another person in the eye and says "yes, I can do that differently next time", they've made a promise.  Some small corner of their brain is going to be watching them, and saying "nuh uh, remember what you promised..." if they falter.  It's not a guarantee they'll actually listen to that corner of their brain, but it's about a million times more likely than if they never said it.  *That's* why the fourth step exists, in my opinion.