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TCPI News Vol. 2, No. 1

November 19, 2001

In this issue:

  1. The Price of Advice
  2. Guidelines for Effective Feedback

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1.     The Price of Advice

Executive coaches, including myself, sometimes lose perspective. We begin to believe that what we offer of value to our clients is advice. We confuse the meaning of "advice" with the meaning of "help," and begin to think of them as synonyms. To help is to provide concrete answers to questions, honest and direct feedback on ideas and actions, and to offer narratives and metaphors that allow others to arrive at their own conclusions. To offer advice is only useful to demonstrate that you have been listening.

Do you have trouble distinguishing between help and advice? Think of advice as sympathetic. When you give advice, the content focuses on you – your feelings, your experiences. You will begin sentences with "when I was in your situation, …" or "This is what I think you should do …" Help is emphatic. It puts the focus on the other person, "You need to call …" or "Don’t over react to …" or "This is how you …"

Remember when you first discovered forums on the Web that related to your interests? The lure of participating in a community of shared concerns was compelling. There was a feeling of possibility, of learning new things, uncovering potentially lucrative consulting opportunities. Why, I wonder, do I now find myself deleting them unread, or after a quick scan of the first entries?

An article by Dale Dauten in the business section of the 30 October 2001 Albuquerque Journal, provided a clue to my forum malaise. I’m tired of reading advice. Writing about the true nature of advice, Dauten quotes a friend of his who resolved to stop giving advice, "By far the hardest resolution I ever took on. The addiction to offering advice is huge. Genuine requests for advice (apart from a doctor’s or lawyers office): nil." Dauten offers the observation that people who say they’re looking for advice really want help. He quotes Bill Walton, the former basketball player, who said, "I learned from Coach Wooden to not give advice, that people who are looking for advice are looking for accomplices."

On occasion the training and HRD forums provide some tangible help, but for the most part, the content is preachy, long-winded, and self-serving. I marvel at the time management and stamina of some of the regular contributors, who seem to be able to spend inordinate amounts of time responding to and arguing with one another and still manage to make a living.

Coaches are in danger of sharing the same fate as the forum advice givers; being turned off or deleted because they lose sight of the basic distinction between advice and help. A good rule of thumb is, as Dauten puts it, "No one wants advice, they all want help."

When you feel the urge to give advice, turn it into help by following Henny Youngman’s lead; make it short and to the point.

Patient (raising an arm): "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."

Doctor: "Don’t do that."

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2.   Guidelines for Effective Feedback

Is it any coincidence that when companies are downsizing they rediscover performance appraisal? Many of the companies we work with are dusting off their appraisal systems and in some cases, redesigning them.

The following article by Christina Morfeld, TCPI Associate, reminds us about the basics of giving feedback, which apply in formal appraisal situations as well as part of ongoing employee development. A version of this article first appeared in February 2000 at, but its message is still timely.

Feedback should be provided on an ongoing, year-round basis, not just during the annual performance appraisal. While it is very easy to tell employees what they are doing wrong, don’t forget to tell them what they are doing right! Even star performers need to be told they are doing a good job.

Feedback Should Be Timely
Provide feedback as close as possible to the occurrence of the behavior in question; it will be of little use to your employee otherwise. If you wait until the annual performance appraisal to address poor performance, your employee may resent that you did not give him or her the opportunity to correct the problem before "raise time." Even if you are discussing an employee’s excellent performance for the first time during the annual performance appraisal, it may be "too little too late" if that employee places a high value on recognition.

Feedback Needs to Be Specific
Do not make vague generalizations when providing feedback to your employees. Instead, describe the undesirable behavior in exact terms. Be able to substantiate, also in very specific language, the importance of performing the job correctly and the consequences of continued poor performance. While you and your employee should work together to develop solutions, be prepared to identify specific alternatives if necessary.

Feedback Must Be "Owned" by the Giver
Use personal pronouns such as "I" and "my" when providing feedback to an employee. These words enable you to take responsibility for your own thoughts and observations. Sentences worded in this way are less likely to be interpreted as accusations than those that use the word "you," reducing the possibility of a defensive reaction by your employee.

Feedback Must Be Understood by the Receiver
Ask your employee to rephrase your feedback to ensure that his or her interpretation corresponds to your intent. Also confirm that your employee understands what is expected of him or her, including the available tools and resources that can assist in the fulfillment of these expectations.

Deliver Feedback in a Supportive Climate
The setting in which you provide your feedback is as important as what you say and how you say it. Provide feedback in a disruption-free environment in which there is no risk of being overheard. Make it clear that the purpose of the feedback session is to assist your employee in achieving success (not to punish or embarrass him or her).

Allow your employee the opportunity to explain why performance has been below expectations. Offer your help and support and identify additional resources, such as training, books, or experienced co-workers, from which your employee can also learn.

Follow-Up Feedback with an Action Plan
Together with your employee, formulate a strategy for improving his or her performance. This may include skill-building activities, practicing in a dummy environment (in which errors are not as detrimental), and/or using an entirely different method of performing his or her duties. Agree upon deadlines and measures, and schedule a follow-up meeting to review progress.

While it may seem like an added responsibility to your already "full plate," you are actually making your job easier by providing feedback to your staff on a consistent basis: Your employees will always know what is expected of them, they will appreciate your interest in their success, and your work group will have a greater likelihood of meeting and exceeding its business goals.

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