I remember it like it was yesterday — that moment when my professor looked me in the eye and said with a straight face, “It’s just not very good.”
I didn’t know how to respond. It was 2010 and my first quarter at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. My professor was a former reporter and editor for The Associated Press, among other esteemed news outlets. He was a pro’s pro and a no-nonsense editor. He was also what you might call “old school.”
Traditional news people have a reputation for cutting out the crap and getting straight to the point, and this particular professor was every bit the part of that stereotype. He was blunt. He swore and swore often. Things would come out of his mouth that my classmates and I just couldn’t believe, sometimes to the point of bewildered laughter. We both loved him and hated him at the same time.
So there I was, one on one, as he gave me feedback on a story I had worked myself to death over. It was early in my tenure at Medill, so I had little to no experience as a journalist. Still, I was a history major during my undergraduate years, with a penchant for writing, so journalism seemed like a natural fit, something I thought I would be good at. I thought I was a good writer. I thought I knew how to report a story.
But I was dead wrong — and this gut-punching professor wasn’t afraid to let me know.
“It’s just not very good,” he said. “It just lacks … how do I say this? … any kind of a story.”
This type of feedback didn’t sit well with me at the time. I remember leaving the meeting pissed off. Was it really that bad? Couldn’t he have gotten the point across more softly? I had studied under what you might consider tough professors before, but they never would come off so cold in their feedback. They would always come up with a nice way to couch negative feedback in a positive light. I’d grown used to that.
Today’s management philosophy tends to favor this softer approach. We read about the importance of soft skills like emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion as those poised to propel the next generation of leaders. We’re told that the best way to deliver bad news to an employee is to sandwich it with equal parts praise. Aspiring leaders who don’t exhibit these skills are labeled as dated command-and-control style leaders or out of touch with the mantra of modern management. They’re told they need to hire executive coaches. They’re ostracized in certain organizations for being poor culture fits.
Then again, there was something in the way I responded to that particularly direct form of feedback that was different. I was a little put off, to be sure. But it seemed to resonate with me better than before. I was motivated to get it right and not waste time pretending there was a positive spin. Perhaps the professor did this intentionally or — more likely — this was just his personality.
In any event, it worked. The message came through loud and clear, and once I was over the initial emotion of it, I was ready to move on and correct the issue and improve.
This wouldn’t be my first exposure to that type of no-nonsense, direct feedback. My entire time at Medill was peppered with similar instances. These professors held you to a high standard, and they weren’t afraid to tell you straight up when you weren’t living up to it. Medill is famous for what’s known as a “Medill F.” If absolutely anything in a piece of work is incorrect — factual or otherwise, but especially if it is factual — it’s an automatic F. Fail. No bones about it. You could correctly spell a source’s name nine times out of 10 and it didn’t matter; that one misspelling did you in.
It sounds harsh, but it’s very effective. Students live in so much fear of getting a Medill F that they spend abundant amounts of time making sure absolutely everything in their stories is perfect.
Since leaving grad school at Medill and entering the working world — and especially since I started covering human resources and the business of talent — I’ve observed that being direct is too often linked with being rude. Sure, I subscribe to the idea that people shouldn’t generally be assholes; this goes for managers as well. Still, sometimes saying it straight is the best way to go, even if it hurts a little.
As a manager, spending too much time garnishing negative feedback with positive spin or being afraid to deliver such feedback in the first place is counterproductive. In many cases, not only are you wasting time but you’re missing an opportunity to properly develop the person you’re managing. Sometimes people need it told to them straight. In some instances, even being off-putting just might be what the doctor ordered; it wakes people up and gets their attention in ways other approaches wouldn’t.
To be sure, there are instances where totally straight, unfiltered feedback or communication isn’t appropriate. The trick is knowing when it is and when it isn’t, and having the self-awareness as a manager to know when you’ve crossed the line or are dealing with a particular person where such an approach is ineffective.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. But in an era where the consensus is that soft skills reign, business leaders shouldn’t allow themselves to be completely sensitized to the idea that being direct isn’t accepted or effective. You can show empathy and compassion while being direct and to the point at the same time. Sometimes coming off as tough or harsh is what’s needed for development.
At the time, I hated that professor’s guts. I know others did too. But I also know that if he weren’t so direct and harsh at the time, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. I know a lot of his former students say the same.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.