How to Deliver Really Bad News



How to Deliver Really Bad News

The Challenge of Speaking Your Mind

Who looks forward to bad news? No one. And yet, every now and then, we still need to break some bad news. In the world around us, the unexpected can happen, and sometimes the lot falls to you to inform someone about something negative. Reds are the best at delivering news that no one wants to hear. Rather insensitively, they’ll just come out and say that you’ve been fired, before asking you if you would like milk in your coffee. Tricky? No, not at all. He was just finished with the task at hand.

But there’s a difference, of course, between bad news and bad news. It’s one thing to convey a personal criticism and another to tell you that your grandmother has just died. The latter is always difficult, and no one will receive that news well. However, the former can be fine-tuned and adjusted in a way that makes it easier for someone to receive.

Feedback alone is a gigantic topic. It gives many people a stomachache just thinking about it, and many people I meet during my leadership programs find this area particularly difficult. Not only is it difficult to give feedback, but it also seems to be difficult to receive it. This is really strange, because the latter means just sitting there and listening. But anyone who has received some hard criticism and left the room afterwards knows that sometimes you can’t utter a word. When delivered badly, it will leave you feeling sick.

The solution for many executives I meet seems be simply skipping giving any kind of feedback. We don’t know how to give either positive or negative feedback, so we ignore it. I hardly need to point out why this isn’t a good solution.

The Downside of Just Doing Your Job 

Once, many years ago, I had a colleague, Micke, who was exceptionally good at his job. Of all of us, he was the one who always met his budget targets. He had won every sales contest and was held in high esteem by customers. Boxes of chocolates and bottles of wine would arrive for him from far and wide on a regular basis.

What do you do with a colleague like that? You make sure that he stays. Easier said than done. As his boss, I wanted to show my appreciation for all his hard work. So, I called his wife and prepared everything. One Friday, just after lunch, I summoned the team to the conference room. In front of everyone, I pulled Micke up and explained that he was greatly appreciated and that we, as a group, wanted to show how happy we were to have him on our team. I said he should take the rest of the afternoon off, take his wife out to dinner, and go to the cinema, and that I would foot the bill. I gave him fifty dollars—you understand that this was some years ago—and two movie tickets. The babysitter was already arranged, so off Micke went. We cheered and applauded a little more, and the whole thing became a big feel-good moment.

Micke didn’t say a word. Until afterwards.

He took me aside and gave me one of the worst telling-offs I have ever received. How could I do that to him? Parade him out in front of all twenty-seven people, who just stood and stared at him! Awful! He was just doing his job. He made me promise never to do anything like that again. He was mad with me for a week.

Micke was Green. Does this give you any clues?

Feedback Immunity

There are many ways to give feedback, whether positive or negative, in the wrong way. Now I am going to share some ways you can properly give feedback. The funny thing is that this approach works just as well whether the feedback is positive or negative. Some people are immune to the first kind, others to the latter. I’ve chosen to focus on negative feedback, as this is typically the most difficult. If you can manage to deliver that, then you can probably manage the positive.

The following advice works just as well for your private life as it does for work. The only thing you need to know is what color your target is. So it begins as usual by you analyzing what colors are in the room. Once you’ve done that, you just have to set to work. The aim is to get the person to listen to your comments and, ultimately, to create change. All of the challenges of the previous chapter, about how others may perceive the different colors, can be dealt with if you just know how. The next sections explain just that. Many of the basic techniques in each section are similar no matter what color you’re talking to, but in each case the way you approach the person will vary depending on who he is and how he’ll receive feedback.

How to Give Feedback to a Red—If You Dare

Good news: You don’t need any great skill to give negative feedback to a Red. The only thing you need is a Kevlar vest and fire-resistant hair. Because no matter how you do it, the temperature in the room will rise. If you’re prepared for it, there won’t be any major problems. But if a Red doesn’t respond to what you say, then you have reason to worry. Either he’s ignoring you and what you’re saying or he’s seriously ill. But the following scenario is the most common. So hold on to your hat.

Don’t Gift Wrap Things

Let me be very clear here—when you’re conveying criticism to a Red, the simplest way to do so is to avoid any form of decorative wrapping. It’s enough of a challenge to even get through to Reds with your criticism, because a Red always believes that he is right and you are wrong.

Many years ago, I discussed Red behavior with a group of sellers, most of who were Yellow. They understood quite quickly what Red behavior was, and the Reddest person who came to mind at that time was their boss, the sales director. They described him as boorish, a bad listener, completely insensitive, manipulative, unrelenting, often in a foul mood, too much in a hurry, plus a whole bunch of other less flattering descriptors. The group was seriously concerned because they suspected that he hated his staff. Sure, he also worked very hard, and they respected him for that. But since he sometimes asked for ideas and then proceeded to lambast anything that didn’t suit his own agenda, they never got anywhere. Besides that, he controlled everything they did, in detail, which was probably the reason he worked so hard. The whole situation sounded disturbing, and the sales team would soon fall apart if nothing was done.

I called the sales director in and explained what the group had said. He listened with increasing interest but without showing any great concern. But his reaction was interesting. Once I had explained to him that his twenty sales reps—the most important resource he had to reach his personal goals—thought that he was an insensitive and ag gressive son of a bitch, he replied, “This is just a handful of anecdotes. It’s not about me. It’s their incompetence that’s the problem. If they just worked harder and did a better job, I wouldn’t have to push them so hard.”

When I explained that his impatience was stressing the group and made the sales reps insecure in their work, he replied that it wasn’t his fault. Impatience wasn’t a weakness—it was a strength, for Pete’s sake! If he were to drag his feet the same way everyone else was doing in this company, nothing would get done. If they just bothered to increase their pace a little bit, then he could calm down and not be so aggressive. But the problem wasn’t really him—it was them.

Give Very Concrete Examples

As is often the case with Reds, everyone else was the real cause of the problem. Although Reds are efficient at getting things done, they can also be quick to appoint scapegoats. Remember the competitive element that constantly lies in wait beneath the surface. My way of getting through to this man was to break the whole thing down into tiny pieces and point to specific examples.

For instance, I explained that when he, at nine o’clock on a Friday night, called up a seller to grill him about a particular customer, he ruined the poor man’s weekend. There was no point in saying that the sales rep was a nervous wreck or that he couldn’t sleep, because this boss would just have ignored it. He wasn’t responsible for how people felt. However, I was able to point out that the sales rep would come back to work on Monday morning completely exhausted by the mental effort. And then he wouldn’t be able to do his job to the best of his ability. Nothing would be sold that day. By coaching the sales director to give clear answers, I got him to see that he would have problems if his sales team wasn’t able to perform. Suddenly he had a reason to rethink.

Stick to the Facts

Another trick to keep in mind: A Red is not that interested in the feelings of others or what people think. He prefers to focus on facts and likes to fix things. He sees himself as an excellent problem solver. I delivered my criticism by placing the boss in the position of the key, the only key to the team’s success. Basically, it appealed to his ego. He saw himself as the great leader whose ability to lead the group was the critical factor in creating total dominance in the industry.

Be Prepared for War

So, step by step, example after example, situation to situation, I went through the sales team’s perceptions of him. The sales director protested each time and, without exception, argued strongly against any hint of personal criticism. The only thing he did was his job. For every example I gave, I had to repeat the same thing—it didn’t matter what he thought; as long as this was what the sales reps thought, he had a problem. He swore and fussed and accused me of incompetence. He would never hire me again. No one would ever hire me again after the uncalled-for attack I had subjected him to. I was finished in the industry.

I refused to play along with his ranting and raving. I leaned back in my chair and waited for the storm to abate. The worst thing you can do in such a situation is play along with the theatrics and start yelling and pounding your fist on the table. The Red’s natural instinct to win any given situation will then take over completely. He won’t be able to think long term and will become focused on winning right now. He’ll ignore the fact that we’re working together and that we’re going to meet again tomorrow. He’s out to win in this moment, even if it costs him a relationship. He ignores the consequences, aggression takes over, and the real battle begins.

But if you refuse to play along, you can manage Reds’ anger. So I remained seated, and when he finally calmed down I simply continued to the next point, without saying a single word to indicate that I had been influenced by his ranting and raving. Step by step, I got him to see the impact of his conduct on the group. And little by little, he began to realize that he had to learn to control himself when things didn’t go his way at work. He needed to take it easier on other people, to avoid placing unreasonable demands on others, and on himself, and to wait for deadlines instead of demanding delivery a week early, just because he was bored.

Ask the Person to Repeat What You Said

Seen from the outside, this whole incident probably looks like a violent quarrel, but I knew that I could make real progress if I didn’t let up. So I did what I recommend everyone trying to give negative feedback to a Red should do—asked the Red to repeat what we’d both just agreed on.

So this sales director had to obediently explain how he would act in the future, point by point, in certain specific situations. (I had a mandate from the CEO to do this, and we both knew it.) And yet even though intellectually he knew that I was right, he couldn’t give in. He crossed out one of the less important items on the list, clearly showing that it was a victory for him. Somehow, he still had to win.

Conclusion: Prepare yourself extremely well and try not to give negative feedback to a Red if you are not feeling strong that day. You need to be full of self-confidence, so choose your opportunity carefully. A Red is always strong, always full of self-confidence, so for him it doesn’t matter. He will ride into battle at a moment’s notice, if necessary. And, prepare yourself for the possibility that he might try to turn the tables. He’ll accuse you of everything under the sun so that he can feel he has the upper hand.

Don’t fall into his trap.

How to Give Feedback to a Yellow—If You Have the Patience 

Yellows are great at many things. Among their great attributes is their love of change. Ideally, they’d change things all the time. You would think that accepting feedback can be a way to start changing the things that need to be improved. In particular, negative feedback is a great way to find out how to raise your performance to a higher level. But this isn’t quite the way it works with Yellows.

In fact, that isn’t how it works at all. When it comes to change, Yellows are certainly in favor of it, but only if they came up with the idea themselves. Criticism from the outside isn’t always well received.

Janne, a good friend of mine, is a phenomenal entertainer. There isn’t a group he can’t amuse, given enough space. His stories are usually fantastic, and during dinner out they come, a whole succession of jokes so that he has everyone rolling in the aisles. One joke after the other, and the whole thing is extremely entertaining. Janne is truly funny, no doubt about it.

But—and it is a significant but—he dominates everyone else in the room. No one else gets a word in edgeways. If you try, he stops and drowns you out, because he doesn’t see you as a partner in a conversation but rather as his audience. After a while, the laughter falls silent and things start to get uneasy. Those of us who know Janne understand that this is due to his desire to constantly demand center stage, while, for others, it takes more time to see through him.

At a dinner party once, it went so far that people started talking about Janne behind his back. I felt bad for him, so I decided to take the bull by the horns.

Make an Agenda—Follow It!

The first thing I had to do was prepare myself. Just sitting down with Janne and speaking from the heart about the issue wasn’t going to work. He would just take over the conversation and lure me off the track. So I decided to give a few concrete examples. I also wrote down exactly what effects his behavior might have on people. And I tried to anticipate all his objections.

On one occasion, Janne was helping me in my garden and afterwards we were sitting in the yard, sweaty and exhausted, each of us with a beer in hand. He had just told me about a trip he took to Spain and how frightened he was when the boat that was taking them to the tiny island where they were staying almost capsized. (His wife had already told me that they hadn’t even gone by boat. They had taken a small local plane.) But when he stopped for breath, I seized the opportunity.

“Janne,” I said. “We need to talk about a serious problem. You talk too much. And you make things up. I know that what you just said isn’t true because I spoke to Lena and she said that you flew to the island. This has to stop or you’re going to end up on bad terms with people.”

Janne stared at me as if I had lost my mind. “I don’t talk too much,” he said, a little bit surprised. “And even if I did, it would be because I have lots to say. I actually remember a time when I—” I put up a hand in front of his face and moved it quickly back and forth. It silenced him. I went straight on to the next step.

Give Very Concrete Examples

“At the last party we had together, you spoke more than fifty percent of the time we were sitting at the dinner table. I timed you. We were there for two hours and you held court for more than one of them.”

“You laughed,” he said, now quite grumpy.

“At the beginning. But if you’d been more observant, you would have noticed that it was only at the beginning. And afterwards I heard several people commenting on your need to take center stage in rather a negative way.”

This made Janne really indignant. “What ungrateful people! There I was, entertaining people, and what do I get for it? Sheer hostility! A stab in the back!”

“I’m not evaluating what they said,” I said, “but I noticed that they thought you were talking too much. Do you understand what I mean?”

It’s incredibly important to get the Yellow to acknowledge and accept the message. If you don’t recognize a problem, you don’t have to solve it. What did Janne do? He nodded morosely. I thought things were going rather well after all.

Then something very strange happened.

Be Aware That His Ears Might Not Be Connected to His Brain

“I understand that you were bored,” he said. “You’re right. I’ve told some of those old stories way too many times. I need to stop repeating myself.”

I shook my head in despair. He had totally missed the point.

I said, “There’s nothing wrong with your stories. You just need to cut down on the number of them. Take every third one. Skip two out of three. The problem is that you talk too much, not that you repeat yourself. You have to let the other seven people around the table speak.”

But he wasn’t listening; he began telling me a new story just to check if I had heard it before. I had to repeat the whole thing.

Explain That You Don’t Dislike Him—Only His Behavior

Criticizing a Yellow is difficult because they take things personally. If everything isn’t ice cream and sprinkles all the time, then there must be a problem somewhere. They think you’ve suddenly become enemies. And Janne reacted in the same way. He physically moved several inches back away from me, a clear signal that he was upset. So I did what you do with little children: I explained that he was still my friend—probably my best friend—and I thought he was really funny. The only thing I wanted was for him to bury the blabber a little bit. He’d just gone overboard a bit. I told him at least ten times that I liked him very much.

Unfortunately, he’s a frightfully bad listener, so I had to remind him of all the fun things we had done together and that I cared tremendously about him. I flattered him and congratulated him on his choice of a new car. I simply manipulated him. A little bit at a time, he began to thaw, and his body language became less defensive.

Prepare Yourself for a Strong Defense Mechanism, Especially the Martyr Complex 

But even that wasn’t enough. Janne came back with comments like: “Nobody likes me,” “Everybody else is much more entertaining,” “I thought you thought that I was funny.” This was in addition to all the usual defense mechanisms, of course: He was only keeping the party going. It was everyone else who was quiet and boring. What was entertaining about an introverted wallflower? And talking too much—how was that a problem? On the contrary, it was actually a very nice quality. I pointed out that his performances left no room for others to speak or participate.

A concrete example: At the latest dinner, Janne’s wife, Lena, was asked a question on five different occasions and every time it was Janne who answered. In the end, it was almost ridiculous. Everyone noticed this except Janne. Lena stopped talking completely.

“But she took so long in answering! And I knew the answer!” He understood nothing. Or he chose to deliberately be slow on the uptake.

Ask the Person to Repeat What You’ve Agreed To and Follow Up As Soon As You Can 

This is easier said than done. Both times we met right after our conversation, he was on the alert. At one point he remained silent during the entire party. Sure, it was a childish way to point out his misery, and it was clearly obvious that he was about to burst with frustration. Not allowing him to talk was like denying him oxygen. And what irritated him most of all was that no one around the table asked why he wasn’t saying anything. Couldn’t they see that he was putting on this show for their sake?

What happened was that his wife began speaking more, and people really enjoyed her conversation because she was so pleasant.

After a while, Janne went back to his usual self. It was the easiest way. He saw no direct benefit from keeping quiet. And Lena fell silent again. In Janne’s case, I valued our friendship more than trying to change his behavior. I never took up the issue again, but sometimes I take Janne breaks. I simply need to have a good rest from him. If he had been a coworker instead of a friend, I would have followed up several times to ensure he really made a change.

Conclusion: Despite their flexibility and creativity, Yellows are actually the most difficult to change. They don’t listen and only implement changes that they themselves have thought of. What you need to do is massage their egos as much as you can bear and put words into their mouths.

It’s worth remembering that their short memories also apply to hard feelings. Although they feel awful when criticized, they soon forget. They simply repress everything that is difficult or unpleasant. So if you can just cope with the groans and the moans and maybe a few tears in between, you can continue towards your goal. Achieving that change that will do you both a world of good.

With patience and perseverance, you’ll eventually succeed.

How to Give Feedback to a Green—but Think Twice Before You Do

This is the section I would rather skip. Why? you may be wondering. Simple. Criticizing a Green can be cruel. They will feel bad and will simply withdraw and shut down. In general, they have weaker egos and can often be very self-critical. You don’t want to increase this burden even more.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between being self-critical and changing and being self-critical and not doing anything about it. Many Greens roam through life wishing that things were different. But they rarely have the drive to do anything about it. So they continue to be dissatisfied. Sometimes I think that’s an end in itself, not to be satisfied. It’s a way to get some attention, to gain some power. I know many Greens who control everything and everyone in their families by simply refusing to do anything whatsoever. Psychologists call this being passive-aggressive—a very apt expression.

However, if you would like to give feedback to a Green, here are some methods that might work. Just make sure that you’re really committed before you get started.

Give Concrete Examples, and Use a Gentle Approach 

Of course, it’s always good to be concrete. The difference here is that a Green actually listens, which both previous colors did not. A Green hears what you’re saying and dislikes what he hears. But you have to be concrete, and you might be able to do this in the same way as with Reds—but in reverse.

While it doesn’t work to tell a Red that you feel bad because of his behavior or that others feel ill at ease because of something he did, that’s precisely what works best here. A Green is a relational person and doesn’t like to offend. It may seem manipulative, but if a certain form of behavior makes you sad, angry, or just generally dejected say that. A Green person will sense your mood, and he’ll pick up what you are saying if you dare to be honest about it.

Be Gentle, but Don’t Backpedal

It is all about clarity again. If you have any shred of humanity, you’ll see how a Green falls apart the more you give him negative criticism. If you say to your partner that his constant habit of sitting in front of the television watching sports such as football makes you feel completely neglected and unloved, you’ll immediately see how much this news affects him. But then it’s important that you not backtrack on your statement and say things like “Maybe it’s not that bad,” or “I still have some projects I’ve been wanting to work on while you relax.” Dare to be clear, and go straight to the point.

You need to convey your message in the right way. Clearly but softly. A hand on someone’s shoulder can be enough to send a signal that “we’re still friends, but I have a problem when you do this or that.”

Deal with the Green’s Response “You’re Right—I’m So Stupid!”

Total appeasement. A Green’s reaction when you tell him how you feel about his behavior is a variation on the Yellow’s martyr complex. A Green will prostrate himself, accusing himself of being all kinds of stupid things. Often there will be comments like “I will never do that again.” Severe compliancy is sometimes unavoidable, and tears may flow. Greens crush themselves with additional arguments about why they’re useless and stupid. They’ll kneel in your presence for weeks afterwards and try to placate you in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

I heard a story about a man who was told by his wife that she really hated that every single evening he simply had to spend a certain amount of time playing video games (a creature of habit). He admitted that it was childish, unnecessary, and costly. (He spent a considerable amount of money buying upgrades and features for the games.) He promised to be more attentive to her needs. He promised everything and more besides to make up for his dismal behavior. The following six months, he hurried home from work to do the cooking before she arrived. He bought her flowers once a week, and he massaged her feet without her even having to ask.

Very sweet and very appreciated—except that he didn’t actually do what she asked him to, namely, to stop playing computer games. He had avoided accepting that particular detail. After all, he had never promised to stop straightaway.

Be Sure to Explain That the Behavior Is the Problem, Not the Person 

As with Yellows, dealing with a Green is like dealing with young children—“Daddy loves you, sweetie, but can you please stop eating ice cream on the sofa?” The risk is that the negative feedback will damage your relationship with the person. But you can easily solve this by quickly coming back to the person with good news and positive feedback. In this case, it’s not enough just to say that you’re only concerned about one problematic issue. You need to show in action that you’re not planning to assassinate him. He must be reassured by what you do, not just by what you say.

Ask the Person to Repeat What You Have Agreed On—and Follow Up!

I’ve noticed that Greens don’t always write down what you say to them, so it’s a good idea to check with them to make sure you’ve both interpreted the conversation the same way. If you have a colleague and would like him to be a bit more punctual, make sure he understands that the only issue is his timekeeping. He may very well have gotten the idea that you were actually upset about something else entirely.

We often assume others will behave the same way we would in any given situation. And because Greens can be quite vague when they speak to others and often avoid talking about the real problem, they frequently get the idea that you’re really talking about something else. They never go straight to the point themselves, so they assume you haven’t, either. So what could you possibly be so unhappy about?

Make sure you’re both in agreement about what the problem is. And follow up. We’re talking about changing something and creating a new pattern of behavior. And, as usual, Greens will try to solve the problem by doing … nothing.

Make sure that doesn’t happen!

Conclusion: If you’re human, which I think you are, you may have a guilty conscience and think that you went at the Green guy way too hard. I remember one occasion when I argued with an employee because, in my opinion, she didn’t do what she was supposed to. Her reaction was to completely fall apart, and she didn’t come to work for two days. When we spoke about it afterwards, it turned out that I hadn’t actually asked her to do those specific tasks. I’d just assumed that she looked at things the way I did.

I can admit that at the time I was an inexperienced and ineffective boss. I made a classic mistake—I looked at the situation through my own glasses and became furious when her glasses showed something else. And when I realized this later on, I felt quite ashamed of myself. She looked so distressed and went out of her way to avoid meeting me. For a long time I barely dared to say much more than hello and good-bye to her. She did what Greens are good at: She ducked down and did even less work than usual.

Many Greens have an uncanny sixth sense that tells them when it’s time to take things extra easy. But here it derailed. This woman did virtually nothing at all because she could sense my guilt and hesitation. She simply took advantage of my bad conscience to get away with it. I lost her completely. In the end, she was laid off because she didn’t do her job and I was severely criticized by my boss because I hadn’t dealt with the issue.

Make sure that you don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t let things go too far. Address the problem while there’s still time. So stand up and deliver the negative feedback—even to the friendly Greens in your life.

How to Give Feedback to a Blue—but First, Just a Word of Warning

Before you try to give negative feedback to a Blue, for Pete’s sake, make sure you know what you’re talking about. Let me remind you that a Blue knows exactly what he’s done and he has a far better eye for details than you do. So make sure you have your facts ready before the thought even enters your mind. The section that follows deals with how to deliver feedback, but the biggest task here consists in finding out the details of what happened before you give any feedback.

It may be a good idea to check things out with several other people who are involved in the issue and to document what they say and the facts they offer. The Blue will be able to quote everything and everyone, and he’ll always have proof that what he did was correct—after all, that’s why he did it. If it had been wrong, he wouldn’t have done it. Make sure you’re armed to the teeth before scheduling the meeting.

Provide Specific, Detailed Examples, Preferably in Writing 

It’s not good enough coming in with sweeping phrases like “I think you’re working too slowly; can you please speed up?” That’s way too general. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or not—the phrase “working too slowly” says virtually nothing. Says who? Slowly in relation to what?

What you need to do is point to specific accurate and detailed examples. You need to say things like “The latest project took sixteen and a half hours too long.” Then add up the effects this has had: “We can’t charge the customer for those sixteen and a half hours, which means that profitability has now fallen by $4,125 (16.5 × $250 per hour, or whatever you charge).

This is a message that a Blue might take into consideration. If you were to present it this way to a Yellow it would never work, but for a Blue this is an extremely relevant piece of information. Because it requires detailed feedback, it would be risky if you were just to present it in a conversation. You need to have everything written down. Blues have a certain degree of distrust when it comes to people talking too much; the written word automatically becomes more true in their eyes.

So write down what you want to say, but double-check everything. And why not actually ask someone else to check the numbers before booking your meeting with the Blue slow coach?

Do Not Get Too Personal If You Don’t Know Each Other That Well 

A Yellow and a Green boss could easily pat a Blue on the shoulder and be personal in the run-up to a meeting where they are planning to give some tough negative feedback. The reason is simple—they know that they would react very negatively themselves if someone were just to jump straight into criticism without softening them up first. This is the worst way to approach a Blue. He’ll just get suspicious and won’t listen the way you want him to.

Think about how a Red would have done things. He would simply have booked a meeting, sat down, and shoved the paper with the negative result at the person. (If he had such a paper. If it was about giving feedback to a neighbor about all the leaves that have blown into his garden, he would simply hand him a garbage bag with all the leaves and ask him to count them.) A Red won’t dress things up. He gets straight to the point. Usually, he won’t have any problem telling you that your work isn’t good enough. Having a project drag on is inexcusable, and because he hoped that everything would be finished a day earlier and not a day too late he’s now deeply upset.

Stick to the Facts

If you want to get through to a Blue, you need to stick to concrete facts. Each time you start feeling guilty about saying negative things and start speaking about how appreciated he is, you’ll confuse him. He’ll wonder what you’re really trying to say. He has no ego that must be inflated, and he will see right through your attempts to sugar coat the criticism you really have. So stick to the facts.

Don’t try the famous sandwich method, used quite extensively by many managers and leaders. In order to defuse and soften a grave message (“you’ve lost too many customers,” “you’ve cost us money,” “you’ve been rude to Ben in Reception”), you should also say positive things (“you’re a valued employee,” “you usually do the right thing,” “I like you very much”) before and after the piece of criticism.

The problem with the sandwich method, commonly known as “praise and blame,” is that no one understands your message. What did you really want to say? For a Blue, this will be particularly incomprehensible, because the positive feedback you wrapped your message up in was relational and perhaps emotional—not professional. Remember that he’s not there to be your pal, he’s there to do a job. Be sure to talk about that.

Feel free to ask if he has any suggestions for improvement. Use words like “quality,” “evaluate,” “analyze,” “follow up.” Simply use the language he is used to. You will get through so much more easily.

Be Prepared for Counterquestions at the Molecular Level 

Of course he won’t buy what you say straightaway. Surely it’s reasonable to give him the chance to ask some questions about what you’ve said. There’s a risk that you’ll face a host of counterquestions that will make you feel like you’re the one being evaluated.

“How do you know?” “Who said that?” “How have you calculated this?” “Where does it say that it must be done that way?” “Why can’t I find this information on our intranet?” “Why did you wait until now to give me this feedback?” “Can I have a look at the supporting documents?” Where’s the contract that regulates our billing?” “Are you sure we can’t add sixteen and a half hours to this bill?” “Hasn’t this been done before? I recall a customer four years ago who…”

You might not be able to answer all his questions, so you must simply decide how deep you want to go. You can always say, “That’s just the way it is; go back to work now.” But this is the worst thing you can do, at least if you want to keep his confidence. The only thing you’ve proven is that you haven’t kept track of the details.

Ask the Person to Repeat What You’ve Said—and Follow Up Soon Afterwards 

When I hold seminars on leadership, the issue of giving feedback is often raised. It’s an extremely complicated subject, because we allow our emotions to direct us when we give feedback (and receive it!). But for Blues I give the same advice as I do for other colors: Ask your Blue employee to repeat what you’ve agreed to. He needs to duly acknowledge that he has seen and heard the same things you have said.

It’s very likely that he’ll be able to repeat everything more or less verbatim, but it’s just as likely that he hasn’t taken the message to heart if you were vague in your delivery or too fixed on protecting your relationship. He understands that he should repeat what he knows you want to hear him say. But this isn’t the same thing as him believing your negative feedback was relevant.

The example I gave of the overdue project is a treacherous hidden trap. Because a project that’s delivered to a customer only has the value the customer believes it to have. Quality is of the utmost importance. If we’re careless—according to a Blue’s standards—we won’t get more orders from that customer. What will the lost revenue cost? So how can you value punctuality as being of more importance than the product itself? At the logical level, a Blue can make your objections seem nonsensical.

But if you know that you’re right (not just that it feels right), follow up afterwards to make sure that he’s back on track.

Conclusion: It’s difficult to criticize a perfectionist. He already knows the best method, and he won’t change his opinion just because you happen to have a fancier title on your business card. So it’s all about doing your homework very well.

You also need to remember that although it may be difficult to get a Blue to respond to feedback, he has no problem criticizing others. Remember, he sees all the mistakes everyone else makes and he will likely point out your mistakes when you least expect it. Not because he’s being vindictive, but just because you’ve botched up.


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