You Don’t Have To Be A Jerk, But You Do Have To Be Honest

Retail Feedback: You Don’t Have To Be A Jerk, But You Have To Be Honest

One thing I learned early on in my career is to give pointed, focused feedback. I, probably like a lot of retail leaders today, had to learn the hard way. I first started in retail leadership when I was 18 and was made a District Manager by 19 and wanted to be adored by my team and I had not the slightest clue on how to coach, develop, or lead anyone. So, when I had to address issues it was in generalities and I apologized, A LOT, throughout my schpiel.

Clearly, that was not the way to go: So…as I upskilled my development in leadership and shored up my coaching/counseling skills, I learned that you had to be direct. You had to speak to the exact behaviors, the impact they had, the consequence they had and the expectation that the company has of performance. You cannot beat around the bush, speak in general terms, apologize or the team members will absolutely not believe it applies to them. BUT…there is a way to deliver this in a respectful, adult, civil, and a totally-to-help-them-be-better manner. To be completely transparent, I did get some great guidance from my time at Disneyland Resort – although I went a little rogue on California employment law once. [I will happily share that story over a martini one day! :)]

It’s a challenge sometimes to provide guidance especially if your team members aren’t used to receiving it. You need to maintain candor that is supportive of their growth but that communicates the challenges that exist and expectations and to help them with their career momentum . It is a slippery slope for sure. When people aren’t receptive to professional guidance you can easily come across as harsh, abrasive, or (in other words) a jerk. This is especially difficult when you enter a business where feedback, praise, and/or communication isn’t built into the workplace.

In a dysfunctional retail environment especially, team members are frequently happily clueless about their strengths and opportunities and content with their day-to-day routine. However, not providing your team with balanced feedback is not in their best interest and certainly not in the best interest of a company that hopes to be healthy and grow. To develop and challenge them to upskill and be great at what they do. To help them move their boundary and stretch themselves they need to know where they stand. I have always believed this to be true and this is how I have always led a team. Uncomfortable though it may have be at first, we need to instill a culture where feedback was given and received both ways – from you to your team and from your team to you.

Here is a great link from First Round Review, Radical Candor – The Surprising Secret To Being A Good Boss that is well worth dedicating 15-20 minutes to reading and re-reading. It says, in a much more eloquent way than I could ever write, the steps to being a great boss that supports understanding, workplace harmony, and team growth. These are lessons that Kim Scott, acclaimed coach for companies like Twitter, Shyp, Rolltape, and Qualtrics has learned over the years. This one, particularly, resonates with me. Here are some of the highlights

-The single most important thing a boss can do, Scott has learned, is focus on guidance: giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is usually called “feedback,” but feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance is something most of us long for.”

-“Finally, Sheryl said, ‘You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say “um” every third word, it makes you sound stupid.’” “Now, that got my attention!” Scott says. For all of us raised in a culture that preaches, “If you can’t say something nice…”, that criticism might not sound so nice. But Scott knows now that it was the kindest thing Sandberg could have done for her. “If she hadn’t said it just that way, I would’ve kept blowing her off. I wouldn’t have addressed the problem.”

-“Caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off.”

-HHIPP: “Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize.” That last P makes a key distinction”

-Make backstabbing impossible. “This is one of the most important things you can do to foster a culture of guidance between the people who work for you.” “By trying to play shuttle diplomacy, I created exactly the kind of toxic political environment that I was trying to avoid.”

-Schedule “manager guidance sessions”: “In other words, I would tell the manager what everybody said but not who said it. Not because I wanted to foster secrecy, but because I wanted to help get the information out there”

Guidance (aka: feedback) is MUCH easier to digest for everyone if it is a consistent practice, fair, and balanced. Always remember that. You can easily fall into the “jerk” zone if you only report on people’s failings or shortcomings. You can easily fall into the “jerk” zone if you have been scared to provide “guidance” to your team and you start to, out of the blue, with no explanation, no preamble to the change in your style. Your team needs to know you are, in more than just this one respect, concerned, supportive and focused on their growth and development. You need to be courageous enough to receive guidance from your team about what they need from you.

If this is a new concept for you, prepare for some rocky moments. Moments you think to yourself “WWWHHHYYYYYY?!? Why did I start this??”. It gets better and easier and, again, maintaining open communication with your team will help them to understand the place where your personal and professional interest in their career is coming from. In the end, it is the best way to approach your team’s development from a leadership standpoint and the best way to support the productivity, growth, and profitability of your retail organization.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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