As our workforce at Level 3 continues to become more geographically diverse, one of the issues that I find myself sometimes faced with is how to provide “constructive criticism” across a span of a couple of thousand miles. There are email etiquette guidelines to help us remember that TYPING IN ALL CAPS IS NOT A GOOD THING. But none of those guides ever explained how to provide criticism over instant messaging. And now we have so many other ways to communicate.
As a graduate of an old school U.S. Army boot camp, I know that nothing is more effective than a little direct, in-your-face feedback. As a rebellious young recruit, I found myself on the receiving end of multiple of these types of conversations, which were often followed by 50 pushups. This technique doesn’t transfer so well to the business world. Face-to-face conversations remain my preferred way to provide “correctional” guidance. But the fact of the matter is that I have folks on my team whom I work with that I seldom see in person. And I’m certainly not alone here.
Five Ways for Using UC to Providing Constructive Feedback (in order of preference)
Option 1 – Face-to-face. This is the original and, in this case, my preferred collaboration tool. I always prefer to provide feedback in direct, one-to-one private verbal conversation. As a manager, I’ve sometimes found providing correctional feedback to be difficult, but direct eye contact and body language help both parties more effectively communicate.
Option 2 – Video conference. While body language suffers somewhat via this mechanism, a video conference is by far the next best thing to being there. Just remember to look at the camera. Good communications etiquette rules still apply here but remember that, depending on the distance involved, there could be transmission delay. In voice communications we can tolerate up to 150ms of delay before it becomes noticeable. In some parts of the world, Internet point-to-point latencies can be over 500ms. This isn’t usually a big deal when you think about transferring a file but when you’re trying to have a carefully nuanced “change your ways” conversation, it’s something to take into account. This is just another reason why your ISP matters.
Option 3 – Voice call. If you don’t have the ability to video conference, the next best way to deliver some constructive course correction is via the phone. The interesting thing about this communications tool is that now we have multiple ways to set up a voice call. We have traditional hard-line phones, mobile phones and, if you’re like us at Level 3, you can also call via your UC platform. Obviously, this mechanism suffers because there is no eye contact or body language, but you are still able to get the subtext carried in voice inflection. The thing to consider is the way you choose to make that voice call. My personal preference, if the person has an office phone, is to try a traditional hard-line to hard-line call first. Sometimes you have to use a mobile phone. However, for me a mobile phone imparts a sense of urgency that you may not want.
Option 4 – Email. I will send an email only if I need to document the feedback or I can’t use any of the other options. The fundamental challenge with email is that it the message is limited by your writing skills. I’m not saying that we are better at speaking than writing. Instead, consider what it takes to become either a good speaker or a good writer: practice. Consider the task at hand, delivering negative feedback; how often do you craft letters complaining about the service you received at a restaurant as opposed to just telling the waiter about it on the spot? Granted, neither of these scenarios happens often, but the fact is that we generally have far more practice delivering negative feedback orally vs. via the written word. If you must provide negative feedback in an email, be sure to first save it as a draft. Walk away from the computer, come back after at least an hour and reread what you wrote. A faux pas in a written document is permanent and, in my experience, recalling an email after it’s sent is seldom possible.
Option 5 – IM and SMS. Two words on these: Just. Don’t. Unless you need to provide feedback that is going to save lives, just don’t use instant messaging. Flipping sides for a second, for positive feedback, this is an excellent tool. Think about it. You’re in a meeting and an executive is patting your team on the back for doing a good job but she forgets to mention the member of the team that actually did all the work. Shooting a text over to that person, who you know really made a difference, is an awesome way to change a potentially mediocre experience [“Why didn’t the CEO mention me by name?”] into something completely different.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve been told to, “Drop and give me 50, “ but I still remember that I’m not supposed to wear my headgear (a hat for you civies) inside a building. There’s just no replacement for direct interaction for some things.
So, bottom line, the trend toward geographically diverse workforces will continue. If you’re in a role that requires you to interact with others, go out and get a webcam. Or get yourself a video conferencing service like Ready Access. For some more thoughts about how to use collaboration tools to improve your business check out our Collaboration Guide.