Ask, don't tell

Nora Akins

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" in 1959 anticipating an age when people would generate value with their minds more than their muscle. As early as 1954, Drucker encouraged leaders to push decision making down through the organization. Drucker said, “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.” Today most of us are knowledge workers. And as knowledge workers, we often know more about our tasks than anyone, including our managers.

Managers have to accept this and their new role; to establish an overall direction and allow the knowledge worker to figure out how to get there. Draw a line from the workers’ roles to the company’s purpose and help the worker achieve by being a coach instead of a boss. Let knowledge workers know “why” and let them figure out the “what.”

According to John Gottman, a social psychologist, people need to feel connected in order to provide effective feedback. Gottman is famous for his 5:1 positive to negative interactions ratio. This means to strengthen our relationships we should offer people around us positive feedback and appreciation five times more than a negative interaction. He offers several steps to develop high-quality relationships. See employees as individuals. Get to know them. Notice employees’ efforts to gain your attention and respond. Express appreciation.

Providing meaningful positive feedback is a neglected supervisory skill. Research shows positive feedback promotes self-development. Before you have a need to correct the employee, offer the positive feedback. It has to be sincere. Small behaviors you want repeated should be acknowledged and appreciated. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, encourages us to praise effort rather than ability because it builds resilience. No one is saying ignore mistakes or lower expectations.

Providing negative feedback is a reality of supervision. Dweck and Gottman are not suggesting the sandwich method of correcting employees; (1) boss says she really values the employee because of X, (2) delivers the correction and (3) closes with employee’s positive attribute. Do not offer praise to soften the blow of negative feedback. The praise is not believed and feedback is undermined.

When you deliver negative feedback, start with “why” it is important and be optimistic about solving the situation together. View mistakes as learning opportunities. As natural as it is, do not guess the motives of others. David Bradford, Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests “Staying on your side of the net.” Avoid references to the person’s motives and focus on how you feel. As an example, rather than “When you are late, you are being disrespectful.” say, “When you are late, I feel disrespected.” Start noticing when you’re making stuff up and get back to what you know before offering feedback.

The day of the boss being the fixer is gone. Address items of importance and discuss why it’s important. Be curious about the situation and encourage curiosity. Ask solution-oriented questions. Evaluate how well you allowed the employee to maintain autonomy and self-correct. Recognize that you will make plenty of mistakes as you transition from boss to coach. Celebrate your growth.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management, provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or

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