Front-stabbing: a cool new management trend?

scream-307414_1280 Hey, check out this new workplace practice. It involves giving people very direct, negative feedback unsparingly, as mentioned here in a Wall Street Journal article.

Front-stabbing, as it's called, is apparently the reasonable alternative to backstabbing. By this logic, blunt criticism, even of the harsh variety, should be delivered to employees or managers whenever it’s warranted—without any social niceties or face-saving gestures.

Now if we’re talking about the value of honest feedback, who can argue with that? Whether it’s peer to peer or manager to employee, people have to find a way to communicate the truth, especially when there’s a performance problem. And honest communication is doubly needed in an organization that promotes “niceness” at all cost, where no one wants to upset anyone else and mediocre work is tolerated.

But HOW you deliver that honest feedback makes ALL the difference—at least if you’d prefer to not have a resentful or traumatized workforce. It’s not difficult—and it doesn’t take much time—to deliver candid input that will not insult, humiliate, or abuse a coworker. (If that’s not important to you, you can go now and close the door behind you.) If the feedback is skillfully delivered, it will usually be appreciated.

Ok, here’s one protocol for giving “negative feedback” constructively. (Thanks to colleague Andrea Zintz for this.) The “set-up” may seem overly elaborate, but it works, and can be done quickly.

Before you start, make sure:

1. You give the feedback privately. (Duh.)
2. You feel centered (i.e. not upset).
3. You establish some rapport with the individual. (This could even be small talk.)
4. You ask for permission to give the feedback.
5. You establish your mutual commitment to a shared goal as a context for the conversation. (“We both want you to be wildly successful with this project, which is why I wanted to point something out to you.”)
6. You communicate your respect for the person in a genuine way. (“You set an important example for the group,” or “I know how committed you are to the team.”)

Then you give your input.

But this shouldn't be a one-way conversation. Make sure:

1. They understand what you’ve said.
2. They have a chance to give their reaction to the feedback.
3. You discuss next steps and offer your support.
4. You make the connection again to your shared goal. (After all, you’re in this together.)
5. You thank them and express your appreciation of them.

(By the way, if you don't respect the person you're giving feedback to, that's a much bigger problem—which YOU need to handle.)

Is this being too “coddling” or deferential? Or too time-consuming for the hit-and-run feedback you’d prefer to make? If you’re 100% certain that the individual you’re giving correction to will positively respond to your usual form of feedback, then do it your way. But I’d play the percentages and spend a couple minutes to get it right—and give the feedback respectfully. Less chance of a defensive reaction and submerged resentment that will come out later, possibly jeopardizing the work you're doing together. Beware of unintended consequences of careless behavior.

An example of a culture that revels in front-stabbing is that of Amazon, at least as it's described in a New York Times article last year. Sure, it's a fabulously successful company, but at what cost to its employees? The author of the article describes grown men and women—even in management positions—sobbing at their desk after receiving confrontational feedback. (Is this what we mean by "employee empowerment"?) There’s even a concern now that former Amazon employees in Seattle are infecting the larger business community there with their blunt treatment and blatant disrespect of others.

In all, there are SO many grotesque aspects to front-stabbing we could devote an ongoing blog to it. It’s astonishing to me that there are managers so emotionally constipated, so cognitively clueless, so unobservant of the effects of their actions on others that this is tolerated ANYWHERE in the multicultural workplace of the 21st century.

The fact that this behavior IS accepted in some quarters (and I’ve seen plenty of it) provides some indication as to why: (1) organizational life is so oppressive to so many; (2) surveys show the vast majority of workers don’t like their bosses OR their jobs; and (3) most businesses are not successful. To put it simply: given that such a large percentage of employees are not "engaged" in their work (approximately 70% of Americans and a higher percentage worldwide, according to Gallup), perhaps one of the reasons is we simply don’t know how to interact with our fellow human beings.

When I hear the crackpot justification for front-stabbing—“It’s better than backstabbing, isn’t it?”—I wonder where it’s written that working in business today requires stabbing at all (or any other violent metaphor you want to use in its place). It's a false choice between avoiding all conflict and seeing how much you can "shake up" an employee with your feedback.

I recall working in one organization decades ago where front-stabbing was practiced with glee. Despite the machismo involved, women dished it out as eagerly as men. As a result there was at least a 50% staff turnover every few years. And many sought counseling after their employment there.

It continues to raise the question for me of how many businesses provide safe haven for talented but wounded leaders with serious personality disorders who have the license to take out their personal issues on unsuspecting workers.

An unintended consequence of front-stabbing that I’ve personally witnessed (aside from the emotional scarring of bright but sensitive individuals) is the palpable fear it creates of making mistakes. That fear is the death knell of creativity and innovation. As I like to tell clients, we need to stop protecting ourselves, hiding our mistakes, concealing our failures. We need to fail faster, recover quicker, learn sooner, and perform better. But in a culture where everyone is hunkered down in defense mode—fearful of being attacked—this ain't gonna happen.

I first witnessed front-stabbing (before there was a word for it) in the world of pop music, which I inhabited many years ago. In most cases the front-stabber was the star celeb (usually a man) who used back-up musicians as paid help, whom he would abuse with impunity. They had to put up with his childish whims, temper tantrums, and prima donna behavior. (I'd name names, but then I'd have to staff up the BLFR legal department.) That’s one reason I usually performed in bands—in which there was no dictator and the pay was distributed equally.

Lately I’ve been concerned about the societal consequences of all this. Reflecting the zeitgeist that is being expressed in the public square this very season—in particular a lack of concern for personal and cultural sensitivity—some seriously dysfunctional behavior is becoming the norm in many quarters.

The question for us is this: Should we aspire—metaphorically speaking—to create a workplace that is “openly caring” or one that is “open carry”?

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  1. I have quietly battled the preposterous and offensive phrase "brutal honesty" for decades.

    What on earth makes it so difficult for the average person to speak truth kindly? I didn't learn it at home, I learned it myself as an adult.

    Others can, too. They just don't care. Or don't know it's possible.

    I frequently engage in even heated debates with others, and do so respectfully, in a manner that makes us all glad we came.

    And I won't deal twice with anyone, anyone, who can't do the same.

  2. Nice theory, but musicians are too sensitive for that. In every band I've been in, a 'dirty look' on stage has always been sufficient communication.

  3. Businesses large and small are full of leaders with personality disorders. A lot of these conditions are difficult to diagnose -- and if the individual is a superstar producer, who wants to question his emotional health?

    1. Superstar producers with mental health issues drive away other potential superstars who won't burn out, attract lawsuits, or otherwise spread toxicity.

      Persistence outweighs genius in virtually every endeavour requiring more than 2 people. If there are only 2 people, super; one can be a psychotic genius, and the other can be a hardworking grunt who sees the genius and shares the dream.

      Hire a 3rd person, and the potential to ruin someone's life, crash the company, or just plain kill the dream, is almost a given. Apple and The Eagles are exceptions, not rules.

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