Real Leaders

15 Cringeworthy Minutes With Mom That Could Save Your Career


It’s natural to want to be liked. People who say they don’t care what other people think are generally lying. And that’s good because people who really don’t care are sociopaths. 

But people who care about the feelings of others have a difficult time managing performance.  We tend to put the warmth of our relationships higher than the strength of performance. In business, this orientation is career limiting. In life it is simply frustrating. All too often we find ourselves tolerating the intolerable.

I was marinating in these thoughts yesterday afternoon after I left the office of a star client who is a recent graduate of the Leadership S.P.A.  I was struck by a story told to me by my client’s female boss about coaching her daughter into college. Last year she found herself nagging her senior in high school to schedule her SAT test, finish her applications, write her essays, meet with alumni and all the other crazy things that are required to get into a desired university. (Hell, the process itself is so difficult anyone who completes it ought to be admitted!)

Well, she of course discovered what everyone discovers about conventional nagging. The more you invest in nagging, the greater the negative returns in your relationship. You might temporarily get what you want but the person you’re nagging will avoid you the way Superman runs from kryptonite. Being a SMART leader she came up with a way to save her relationship and still be a performance coach to her daughter.

She told me that she and her daughter agreed that between 7:30 and 7:45 PM every Monday night would be “college catch-up.” For those 15 minutes mom could go over her checklist, ask difficult questions, make suggestions, and propose offers of help. She said this caused her to be very well prepared and the result was total success. Her daughter was accepted at a desired college and their mother-daughter relationship was actually strengthened.

I call this “positive nagging.”  It is an essential strategy for an empathetic person who needs to lead others and coach performance. It is based on three specific elements.

1. Positive Intention. Brain science has proved that human beings and higher mammals give off brain vibes. That’s right, vibology is really a science.  Of course it doesn’t go by that name.  It falls under the new science of consciousness studies. Neuro-scientists now have ways of measuring the subtle biological changes of people who are the subject of the concentrated thoughts of others. Changes in brain waves, skin sensitivity, micro sweat, pupil dilation are all examples of what scientist can now observe when people feel the thoughts and intentions of others with words being spoken. The great psychologist Carl Rogers encouraged people to improve their relationships by holding the other person in what he called “unconditional positive regard.”  This doesn’t mean that you approve of everything that other person is doing.

It simply means that you actively focus on wishing for the health, well-being, happiness and success of the people you are tempted to nag.  I know that sounds obvious, after all we nag people because we care about them. So holding a positive intention for them should be easy. What’s hard is to give people we depend on and work with the room to find “their own best way” to succeed. It’s wise to remember that everyone’s success style varies. The fundamentals of success include goal setting, commitment, disciplined effort, responding to feedback, adaptation and grit. But the “way” people employ those fundamentals are as different as their fingerprints. So our coaching challenge is to keep the people we are tempted to nag focused on the goal while they feel your advocacy but not your control or micromanagement.

2. Set up an agreed time to offer feedback. Google’s analytical study of effective coaching found that the best interval for formal feedback is weekly. People who are trying to achieve goals actually want weekly feedback. Formalizing the time and process is helpful because you set the psychological context that enables you to be frank and candid (strong) without damaging the relationship. This is the key difference between nagging and coaching. Nagging feels like constant judgment. It is emotionally exhausting and creates defensiveness, excuse making and passive-aggressive defensive maneuvers. When you establish a formal time to discuss commitments and performance it also allows you to be a warm advocate outside the formal feedback time without compromising your authority and ability to drive performance.

3. Studies of effective feedback have concluded the most effective coaching is the result “high contrast feedback.”  That means you contrast positive behaviors and outcomes with negative behaviors and outcomes.  At work it might sound like this. “Today when you were on time for our work session everyone really appreciated it. You set a very powerful, positive tone and your promptness communicates that you value everybody else’s time. You’re so important to these sessions that we really can’t start without you. One thing that isn’t working is you leaving the meeting to take phone calls. We really need your full participation and everything stops when you leave the room. So can I count on you to be on time and fully focused?” High contrast feedback is based on the principle of telling people what you do want and what you don’t want. You can state it as “What really makes a positive difference is… And what doesn’t work for me is…”  I have personally coached scores of leaders to use the phrase, “This isn’t working for me and I need to talk to you about it. . . ” as a way to get into a difficult conversation where contrast feedback can be very effective.

The old-school method of the feedback sandwich has been debunked by research. The sandwich method is to say something positive, then deliver the real feedback and then say something positive. The problem is that often the positive messages are irrelevant. It doesn’t work to say, “That’s a good-looking shirt, by the way your presentation stunk but at least you have shiny shoes.” The power of high-contrast feedback comes from clearly describing demonstrated behaviors that are positive and demonstrated behaviors that are negative. If this feedback is delivered with a positive intention and advocacy for growth a psychologically healthy human should welcome it.

Of course some people just refuse to listen to or accept constructive feedback of any kind.You cannot take responsibility for the negative emotional response of respectfully delivered feedback. If you do, other people’s dysfunctional emotions will control your life and destroy your effectiveness as a leader.

You can be both strong and warm. That’s what great leaders are. It is at the core of SMART Power leadership. It is a universal tool for effectiveness.

It can even help your kids get into college!