The Emperor’s New Clothes – Providing Negative Feedback
By David W. Earle, LPC
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In the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a couple of con men convinced the king that they had magical cloth, which only the wise could see. The king hires these men to make him the most magnificent suit of clothes, declaring that anyone who cannot see this material was a fool. The king was insulated from negative feedback and played the ultimate price; complete and absolute public mortification.
As the fable goes, when the con men unveiled this magnificent suit made of this magical clothes no one wanted to admit all they could see was a half-naked king clad only in his boxer shorts, lest they be branded a fool. It took the honesty of a youth to exclaimed, “The king has no clothes!” before the rest of the kingdom was able to see the reality of the king’s shining nakedness.
Why was this noble taken in by these con men? Does this fable have meaning in today’s sophisticated business world? If so, then this question must be answered and the lessons learned. Fables survive throughout the ages because of the truth they tell. If the businessperson does not to learn this lesson, an embarrassing part of his anatomy, usually reserved for sitting upon will be exposed, metaphorically speaking.
In the parable, being discovered to be naked in public was embarrassing enough but when that small child brought down the veil of denial an even worse fate befell the king. Every one knew their leader was a fool! For now all the kings’ men, all the kings subjects, and even their horses knew their king was a dunce!
In retaliation for being made a fool, retribution must follow! For this public embarrassment of allowing their king to walk naked down Main Street, his trusted advisors would have their heads chopped off; for such is the life of a wise man.
Was the king correct in blaming his wise men, his trusted council for allowing this travesty to occur? After all he did hire them for their wisdom and they let him down. The question is how would the king have taken these advisors’ wisdom had they presented the naked truth to him? Did the king encourage the honest expression of diverse opinions other than his own? Not having the perspective of another point of view creates a very limiting and often disastrous perspective of reality. The attitude of integrity must be cultivated, for except with rare exceptions, this honesty is not freely given.
Feedback is a very powerful concept, which has been misunderstood and misused, but more often under-utilized. In order to see more of reality, everyone needs feedback from others and not just our own limited point of view. No where is the lack of honesty more apparent then in the workplace.
Much has been written about today’s management providing positive feedback to employees. Supervisors have been encouraged to validate and encourage their employee’s work performance, expounding in One-Minute-Management fashion; catching them “doing something right”. However one of the hardest things for many people to do is to provide honest negative feedback. Oh sure, bosses “chew out their employees” all the time and isn’t that feedback? It is true that being called on the carpet is a form of feedback but it is rather ineffective especially when considering today’s work force who seem to thrive when empowered and self-directed.
Today’s effective supervisor must be able to communicate negative feedback to their employees in a fashion, which is conducive to an even honest exchange of ideas, concepts, feelings, and thoughts. To be effective, this exchange has to be two-way and presented on a level playing field. The supervisor must want and create the atmosphere of encouraging what really needs to be understood.
On a basic instinctual level, the reason for this reluctance to provide honest feedback is fear. This fear is the dark cloud swirling around supervisors when confrontation concerning negative behavior is necessary. A performance appraisal is a typical example; ask a group of supervisors if they enjoy performance appraisals, most would respond with an emphatic “no”! Presenting honest response to anyone is usually not a pleasant chore and yet, how powerful it would be if both the employer and employee would provide honest feedback to each other in an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance.
Most people have a desire to be liked, to be part of the in-crowd. Despite some employee’s opinion to the contrary, supervisors are people too. Most people were raised to “be nice” even at the risk of honesty. Most have never developed the ability to present negative feedback in any other terms then in an attack mode. When delivered negatively, this feedback has the subtly of a falling anvil, usually causing the message to be garbled by resentments and anger thus failing in it’s basic efforts to be informative. Compounding that lack of communication is the hole-in-the-gut feeling of annihilation.
The successful business leader needs to be able to give and most of all receive negative feedback. Successful companies will continue to develop this ability in their workforce. Unsuccessful companies without the golden truth obtained from honest feedback, will continue to parade down the street naked!
David W. Earle has over twenty-five years of executive management in the construction field. He now earns his living working as a business coach, by working with organizations and individuals to improve human relationship skills, communication abilities, and leadership principals. As a business coach, he assist his clients in making the changes they want to make in their businesses and in their personal lives.
David is also a civil mediator and arbitrator working as a Court-Annexed Mediator for the US Federal Court-Middle District. He is also a mediator and arbitrator for the Louisiana Rehabilitation Service, served as a mediator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is on the panel of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), was formally on the panel of mediators of The Louisiana Supreme Court, and as an arbitrator for Louisiana State Bar Association.
David received a masters degree in counseling from Texas A&M and is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a small private family practice. He is on the faculty of the University of Phoenix.
David lives in Jefferson Terrace in Baton Rouge with his wife, Penny, and their cat, Hobbes.