Recently while making the rounds to check on my crew’s progress I came upon a groundskeeper who was clearly working but wasn’t making the progress necessary. This situation presented me with a dilemma. Critiquing a worker who is clearly trying but not achieving adequate results (quality, scope, pace, etc.) can be awkward. I wanted to correct this teammate without discouraging him. I gave him some tips like understand what you want accomplished when the job is done and consider the steps necessary to get there. Check your watch frequently to stay on schedule. Ask yourself at regular intervals if you are getting the results you want. Call for help if needed. These suggestions gave him practical tools to help him accomplish what we wanted to. I also wanted him to understand why I was coaching him, so I told him the following story.
Critiquing a worker who is clearly trying but not achieving adequate results (quality, scope, pace, etc.) can be awkward...
Constructive Contextual Critique
While working in Northern Virginia back in the mid 1990’s, for several years I ran the annual Army Ten Miler road race. This race attracts thousands of runners from all over the U.S. and beyond. The field is mostly military, but many civilians run too. It is a truly a great event. One year in particular I ran a respectable (IMHO) 7-minute mile which, while nowhere near the leaders, allowed me to relax and watch the runners behind me work their way to the finish. While urging on my fellow participants, I began to hear a swell of cheers from down the course. As the commotion drew closer, I was able to discern a cadence being shouted. First a deep solitary voice, then a powerful unified response of multiple voices. Everyone around me craned to see what was going on.
What came into view was about 30 or so soldiers in combat boots, fatigues, unit tee shirts AND packs. They were all following a leader (no rank distinguishable, but obviously the leader) shouting the cadence and carrying the unit guidon. Coordinated in unity they continued on, and all of us spectators knew they had run like this for ten miles. It was a wonderful display of dedication, unit pride and commitment. Like everyone else watching, I felt a mixture of pride and awe in this effort. As they went by me, my head turned to follow their progress and I noticed the runner standing right next to me. His haircut and US Army tee suggested he was a military man. He said to me “They really look good, don’t they?” To which I replied with respect “Yes, they sure do.” His next statement surprised me a bit: “But they are slow as sh*t.”
The Moral of the Story
Okay, at this point you may have mixed feelings about this story. Let me clarify my point. The aforementioned unit DID look great. They DID run in unison and demonstrate many of the best values of our US Military. But they were slow. The gentleman’s remarks expressed both pride and accurate acknowledgment of their pace. I like to think it emanated a bit from a sense of unit competition (common in the military AND in grounds crews pursuing excellence) and this man’s own sense of his efforts. I don’t think it was meant to be derogatory or demeaning, simply an objective and truthful assessment of their pace compared to others that had run.
My telling this story to my teammate was to illustrate we need to be good and fast (I know fast is a relative term based on reasonable pace for a specific job). It is tricky to be both. The challenge is to improve quality and pace while not compromising either. It was also meant to express to my worker that I can appreciate his current efforts while also seeking to push him to even better performance. This is the nature of constructive criticism. And, sometimes telling an old story can illustrate that point.
PS: Once again I want to send out my best wishes for safety and healing to all our nation, deep thanks to the many and diverse heroes on frontlines everywhere, and sincere condolences to those who are suffering loss and fear. #FlattenTheCurve #SlowTheSpread #StaySafeOutThere #Godspeed