A nine-year-old baseball player nervously takes practice swings, watching intently from the on-deck circle.
If you are the coach, what do you want him to think about?
- “I’m going to hit the ball hard.”
- “Look for my pitch and crush it.”
- “This is going to be fun.”
What is actually going through his mind?
- “What if he hits me?”
- “He throws hard. Am I fast enough to catch up with his fastball?”
- “I hope I don’t strike out in front of all these people.”
Now, it is his turn to hit and he slowly walks up to the plate. His teammates start some random chant and shake the dugout fence for support.
He digs in with his right foot, taps the plate to make sure he is lined up and stares out at the pitcher. All he needs to think about is the one-on-one battle about to unfold, right?
His dad hollers out from the bleachers, “Keep that elbow up!” Automatically, he raises his back elbow a bit. A coach shouts from the first baseline, “Back up in the box a bit!” He looks down and shuffles back a step. Another coach encourages him to “be aggressive” from the bench.
The pitcher is dealing with an abundance of feedback of his own. From the dugout, coaches fire step-by-step instructions on how to pitch.
- “Keep that front elbow up!”
- “Lead with your hip.”
- “Step in line with your target!”
He starts his motion, thinking about where his elbow is, getting the ball out of his glove early, lifting his knee high and striding in a straight line to home plate. With everything on his mind, he gets a few steps wrong and let’s go of an ugly pitch that would be too high for an NBA basketball player.
With only a split second to make a decision, the hitter takes a big swing. The ball is impossibly high to hit and the batter looks like a samurai dealing a decisive blow with a katana sword.
He knows he swung at a bad pitch. Frustrated with himself, he steps out of the batter’s box to clear his mind. Good luck with that, buddy. The feedback brigade resumes.
- “Lay off the high pitches!”
- “You can’t hit a ball over your head!”
- “Take a deep breath and relax.”
Our frustrated hitter thinks to himself, “You think I like swinging at high pitches? I looked like a fool on that swing! Fine, I won’t swing at that pitch anymore.”
That is all he can think about, and he starts repeating it in his head.
“Don’t swing at high pitches. Lay off the high pitches. Don’t swing at high pitches!”
The pitcher is showered with praise, as his coaches and parents are pleased with the outcome.
- “Great pitch!”
- “Let’s get another one like that!”
- “Looking great out there!”
But, does he look great? He just threw a pitch that was out of the strike zone by two feet. As soon as he let go of that pitch, he knew it was bad. He landed awkwardly, released the ball early and prepared for his coaches to tell him to “bring it down a bit.” Luckily, the batter swung at it, saving him from “helpful feedback” and garnering praise instead.
Bolstered by the positive feedback and relief that he is ahead in the count, the pitcher relaxes. He winds up and hurls his next pitch, this time thinking about little except firing another strike.
His opponent is battling with his thoughts, dead set on not swinging at another high pitch. He is successful at that goal. The pitch is right down the middle. Our batter just stands there and watches. Strike two.
He could scream. That was his pitch, in his favorite spot. He hit that same pitch thousands of times in the batting cage with his dad. And he just watched it helplessly.
Coaches and parents get busy “helping” him with more feedback. More concerned with what this at-bat says about their ability to develop the hitter, their criticism grows.
- “You can’t hit what you don’t swing at!”
- “Don’t hope for a walk.”
- “You’re in the hole now, better protect the plate.”
Wishing everyone would just shut up, our hitter is fighting back tears. He knows he shouldn’t swing at a high pitch. He knows he should swing at pitches right down the middle. All he wants is for this game to end. He wants to be home in his room, with no one watching.
He is being encouraged to be aggressive and patient at the same time. To relax, but be hyper-vigilant. He’s been told where to put his feet, elbows, hips and even where to step. All this feedback has melded into a worthless bag of noise.
Embarrassed that his coaches insinuated that he was “hoping to walk,” he decides that this next pitch will be the last. He is getting a hit or he is striking out. There will not be a fourth pitch.
“Get me out of here.”
On the next pitch, he angrily swings at a pitch that skips in the dirt before it reaches the plate. He pulls his helmet low in an attempt to hide on his way back to the dugout. Humiliated, he wonders why he still plays this stupid game and knows that the worst isn’t over. He still has to drive home with dad after the game.
“Son, let me ask you. What were you thinking in that last at-bat?”
Debunking A Feedback Myth
Finding the feedback “sweet spot” is an art, not science.
Too little feedback and you leave someone to fend for themselves. They lose out on the opportunity to gain from your experience, knowledge and objective perspective.
Too much feedback is just as problematic. People can only handle so much instruction or criticism at a time. Performance improves with additional feedback up to a breaking point.
The graph below tracks what happens when someone reaches their breaking point on feedback.
Unable to process so many inputs simultaneously, our brain shuts down everything but the essential. This is our “fight or flight” response, inherited from ancestors who once used feedback to avoid becoming lunch for saber-toothed tigers.
I hit this breaking point whenever someone tries to “help” me with my golf swing. Give me one tip, like a different way to hold the club, and I can make the change on the fly. Stack that tip with advice on my stance and I have a 50/50 shot of tweaking both.
But, throw in a comment about my backswing and the odds are 100% that I am shanking a ball that barely passes the next set of tees. I can’t process too many changes at once and I start to look like Charles Barkley swinging a club.
Sports Parallel Business
In my first sales role, I craved advice and hung around with the more experienced reps to steal their “secrets.” One of my peers was never shy with advice.
- “You need to make more cold calls.”
- “It’s all about penetration, not the volume of customers.”
- “Shut up and listen more on your calls.”
- “Be more aggressive. You can’t expect people to say yes easily.”
- “Build more rapport early in your calls. Relationship sells.”
- “Get to the point. People make up their mind in the first 7 seconds.”
Each tip contradicted the last. I constantly mixed his metaphors, attempting to make messy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with his sage advice.
I attempted to build rapport in 7 seconds.
“Hi, this is Ian Mathews. How ’bout ‘dem Bears? Super Bowl! Amiright?”
Not understanding how to make hundreds of cold calls a week AND re-visit all of those calls multiple times, I froze. The process felt impossible. I was the batter at the plate thinking too much, and not swinging at all.
We live in a world of abundant feedback. People agonize about how many “likes” their recent Instagram post recent. Common thinking in business is that more feedback is always better. Facts prove otherwise.
Gallup studied thousands of organizations on this topic and found that only 26% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they receive helps them do their job better.
A Better Approach To Feedback
Think about the young pitcher whose fortune changed when the batter swung at a bad pitch. His coaches switched from overly prescriptive to simple encouragement. Had the batter not swung, his coaches likely would have yelled out about his stride, elbows, alignment, etc. Relaxed and emboldened by something that was working, he doubled down on throwing hard and competing.
Fortunately, I had another mentor in my early days of selling. He was a manager who never spent a day in a sales role. He was close to retiring and I frequently dragged him to sales meetings with me.
At first, I brought him because he had credibility and experience. It is one thing when a young salesperson makes a suggestion and another when someone with 40 years of experience shares an idea.
After our joint sales appointments, he never offered advice. He asked questions and occasionally shared his perspective.
- “How do you think that went?”
- “When did you feel the meeting was going well?”
- “Were you ever uncomfortable during the conversation? Why?”
- “When you said this, it made me feel like you had his best interest in mind.”
- “I felt like you were trying to make a commission when you made this comment. Your customer might have felt the same way.”
- “You do this so well. That’s your strength and you should do it more frequently.”
He always found several areas to compliment me, even when we were tossed out of offices after five minutes. Regardless of how poorly I handled a customer appointment, he found pockets of strength and encouraged me to do more of it.
He didn’t give me too much to process at any given time. He knew that my game was filled with holes and he never tried to fill more than one at a time. We would work on discovering needs for weeks at a time. Once he felt like I had it, he might start asking questions about my comfort level on solving problems.
A common mistake made by managers is treating someone like an empty vessel that needs to be filled up. Someone is lacking skills, so bombard them with advice until they have those skills. It doesn’t work with youth athletes and doesn’t work in business.
People are more like a flute of champagne.
Get too excited to fill the glass and foam runs all over the table. Pouring a glass of champagne takes time. You pour a little and wait for the foam to come down. Then you pour some more. The glass can only take so much bubbly at a time.
Great leadership requires patience. Take the long view and develop people at their pace, not yours.
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