Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
The first time I ever drove a car (my parents’ 1939 Ford sedan) was on a rather dreary morning in the spring of 1952. It was raining, our old green Ford was back-firing every half minute, and I was six years old. Dad had been driving “Old Betsy” (that was the name we had given her) down the rutted dirt road that ran in front of our house when my eleven-year-old brother Bill had talked him into letting him take command of the vehicle. Wanting to do everything my older brother was permitted to do, I started begging for the chance to drive the car with all of the blood-curdling whining a six-year-old can muster. Eventually Dad broke down and yanked me onto his lap for a chance at steering Old Betsy.
Prior to this rite-of-passage event, I had watched my dad drive hundreds of times and had always noticed that the steering wheel jerked left and right quite a bit—even when Dad was trying to steer a straight path. This, of course, was due to the never-ending trail of potholes that threw the wheels left or right—requiring Dad to steer back toward the center.
As a young observer, I had misinterpreted the constant movement of the steering wheel. It had appeared to me that driving consisted of purposefully jerking the wheel from left to right and then back again until you eventually came to a stop. It was if the car’s power came from yanking the wheel back and forth. Consequently, that spring day over a half century ago when I was given my first shot at steering a car, I immediately started whipping the steering wheel left and right like a mad man. This unexpected driving technique caught Dad completely by surprise, and before he could wrestle the steering wheel away from me I had driven poor Old Betsy, along with the three Patterson boys, into the deep ditch that ran alongside 25th Street.
Dad never knew that I had jerked the steering wheel because I thought that was the correct way to drive. Instead, he told everyone that we had hit a pothole and that I had “overcorrected”—a logical, but wrong, conclusion. It was the first time I’d heard the word overcorrect. It seemed like a good story, and I stuck to it, but was intrigued by the idea that someone could correct a situation too much.
The idea really hit home when I had children of my own and began the delicate task of directing my offspring’s behavior. I soon learned that when it came to disciplining children, one method didn’t suit all of them equally well. With one child, a stern scolding seemed to do the trick. With another, a mere raised eyebrow set the child back on course. While I firmly believe that the punishment should fit the offense, it didn’t take long for me to learn as a young parent that discipline (to paraphrase Margaret Wolfe Hungerford), is in the eye of the beholder.
I realized that it was possible not only to overcorrect, but by an extension of the same logic, undercorrect. Not by putting too much or too little heft into your steering, but by putting the same heft into very different vehicles—some returning to course quite readily, some remaining off course, and some jumping at the mere touch to the wheel and then veering off in the opposite direction and causing a whole new set of problems.
Later in life, as I began my consulting career (where the topic of discipline was never far from any leader’s lips), I learned that when it comes to meting out discipline or offering up criticism, we tend to take a fairly egalitarian approach. This is particularly true with formal discipline where we’re required by both policy and law to hand out the same discipline for the same offense. After all, when examining the steps you have taken, HR and legal authorities take a close look at the actual punishment and as they look at the punishment, equity rules. You can’t be seen as playing favorites.
The irony, as I have been suggesting, is that the true punishment never resides in the punitive action itself, but only in the reaction of the person being punished. This being the case, formal punishment—even when handed out evenly—can be far from equitable. Some laugh in the face of being given a formal written reprimand, while others feel crushed and start circulating their resumes after receiving nothing more than a word of strong advice from a respected authority.
I recently became aware of this problem with varying degrees of sensitivity to criticism when chatting with a neighbor who is clearly his company’s top performer. He’s a high-output, brilliant, one-of-a-kind contributor. A couple of days ago his boss mentioned to him that although the ideas he presented in a meeting were dead on, he had been a bit forceful and caused others to become resistant. My friend, his boss told him, needed to find a way to be more tentative in his approach.
Knowing my friend, his boss was probably right. But, the well-intended words had been taken as harsh criticism. My friend was now fretting over what he had been told and was actually thinking about finding a job elsewhere. I’m sure his boss would be mortified at the prospect. I’m sure his boss would also argue that he had only casually mentioned the problem and that my neighbor was “oversensitive.”
But there’s gold to be mined here. As I look back over my own consulting career, it’s now clear to me that many of the top performers I worked with didn’t require much criticism or direction. They were hard working, committed, and talented performers—and when they did get moderately rebuked, it tended to be too much. Their steering mechanisms were highly sensitive. Bringing up a challenge in a casual, friendly way was likely to lead to an immediate effort to course-correct. Working this same criticism into a formal performance review discussion could easily have been overkill.
Consequently, you need to take care when coaching others. This doesn’t mean that you don’t hold them accountable, but that you make an effort not to over- or under-steer them. How do you know when you’re steering too much or too little? Start by testing the steering mechanism. Begin with low-key, subtle advice. Observe how others react to your simple suggestions. If they look alarmed at the mere mention of a problem and then do far too much to put the problem to rest, you know you don’t have to provide much formal coaching in the future. Informal suggestions and friendly reminders will work just fine.
In contrast, if others smile at a gentle rebuke and tease you in return, you know you can speak more directly without causing offense. In some cases, individuals will appear almost impervious to your criticisms. With these folks you may have to provide more direct feedback and coaching than you yourself would ever want or demand.
So, when you’re about to try to steer another person in a new direction, test the wheel before you give it a big yank. Otherwise, count on a few interpersonal wrecks.