September 4, 2008
Sometimes You Just Need a 2×4 Between the Eyes
Freshman year in college, fall semester, my friend Peggy and I were in a small seminar class together on Dante. We thought we were pretty smart before the class started. And that we were great writers. Lots of As in high school. Then we wrote our first paper. Professor Bob Hollander gave me a C-. I think Peggy got a D. We were devastated. And pissed. Sure, the ensuing cocktail took the edge off (this was college, after all), but we both scheduled time with the professor during his office hours to figure out where our carefully honed academic trains had gone off the tracks.
Essentially what he said to each of us was this (you have to picture the 60-something professor in a turtleneck smoking a pipe with gravely voice for full effect): “Matthew, your writing wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. But I feel like you can do better, and sometimes you just need a 2×4 between the eyes.” End of meeting. Thank you, sir, may I please have another?
I couldn’t have been more irritated. But I will tell you one thing. I worked four times as hard on my next paper, got an A-, and elevated my game permanently. Not just for this one class, but for all of them. Bob was right. His 2×4 between my eyes worked.
Sometimes when we deliver performance feedback in business, this approach makes sense. There are times when someone is really doing poorly and needs harsh (fair, but honest) feedback. There are also times when someone is doing so-so but generally just not living up to his or her promise and should be doing better. And in those cases, you have to just make a judgment call about whether to give feedback on the margin or go for the full 2×4 to drive the point home and get someone to really elevate his or her game for good.