Mark Jacobs | Crain's Phoenix

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Jacobs

Background:  

Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University is a selective, residential college that recruits academically outstanding undergraduates. Since its founding in 1988, the honors college has attracted stellar students, including National Merit Scholars and high-achieving candidates from across the globe.

The Mistake:

Not cushioning criticism. I was brought up by a direct, practical-minded scientist father. This upbringing led me to believe that if you needed to criticize the work of a colleague or someone you supervise, you could save a lot of needlessly wasted time by simply, directly and bluntly telling them what you thought was wrong.

Because I was brought up this way, I thought that it was perfectly OK. It didn’t make me mad at my parents when they spoke that way to me. I had grown up listening to that kind of criticism, without resentment or thinking my parents didn’t love me. I just worked on addressing the issue they raised. 

However, I found that, for most people, it is much more important to cushion the blow. When it is not cushioned, they may feel hurt or angry or quietly resentful.

For most people, it is much more important to cushion the blow.

The Lesson:

I have learned to deliver what I call a “criticism sandwich”: that is, a layer of approval and thanks for something the employee has done for the cause, then the criticism, then another layer of thanks for being on the team. It seems to be a much better approach even if — rationally speaking — it takes more time.

I would hear my father tell stories about him not understanding why people sometimes got mad at him. It reminds me of Molière’s play, "The Misanthrope," which is about a character who bluntly says everything he believes, which gets him into trouble. Apparently, my father thought it was worth being direct because he didn’t change. However, I began to realize that this was not the way to get along with people. It seems to me that 95 percent of the people in the world would rather have you give them a criticism sandwich.  

Since learning that lesson, I have found that there are varying ways of constructing the sandwich, depending on who you are talking to. I think it lifts morale. 

Interacting with the other college deans at ASU is a key part of my job. I go to meetings with them and it’s all about diplomacy. They can’t be told anything; things have to be suggested because they’re masters of their own domain. They’re not going to let someone critique them directly. So, it’s important to be very diplomatic and just suggest changes to them.

When it comes to faculty, they have an overriding suspicion toward any administrator. Having been a faculty member for many years, I know this to be true. So, you’re overcoming their suspicion that you may be criticizing them for some ulterior motive. I need to remind them that I’ve been one of them and that I am a faculty member, even though I am also an administrator, and that I appreciate what they do and what their lives are like. 

The last layer is the students. They are really a problem these days. They come into college ultra-sensitive of any criticism because their parents have been building them up to an extraordinary degree their whole lives. It’s really changed since I was a kid. So, you have to be really careful that they don’t think that a signed comment is calling them a total loss in life. 

Though the sandwich is constructed in different ways, depending on who you’re speaking to, it’s still the same principle: You don’t make the mistake of bluntly telling them what’s wrong with what they’ve done.

Follow Barrett Honors College on Twitter at @barretthonors.

Photo courtesy of Mark Jacobs

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