The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Calm down, dearie

A teacher comes to see me today, incensed. Not fragrantly. The comments I have written in their Performance Development Review do not chime with them. They have responded on the form in an indignant manner. Well…better said would be that they have reacted on the form. Because they are not responding to anything that I have said. Only what they have chosen to interpret from what I have said. Oh dear.

Commenting upon this with a colleague, we observe that people tend to blur the boundaries between a critical appraisal of a job done and a criticism of the person doing it. Does it need to be that way? Do we always need to think in terms of fault rather than responsibility? Do observations always have to be interpreted as criticisms. I might say that such and such a person has not been able to contribute very much to the team. This is a statement of fact – should it be read as the scribblings of one who is utterly oblivious to the reasons why such-and-such is unable to contribute?

I don’t think so. Criticism is not the same as critical appraisal – at least, I don’t think it is. Am I playing with semantics? Is this why my teachers are playing with semtext?


09 Feb 2012 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. (Here is my indignant/aggressive response.)
    It seems that you are placing a great deal of the blame upon the receiver of the message and not mentioning the giver.
    What did you say exactly?
    (I realize you mightn’t want to answer here)

    You wrote of your observation that.”observe that people tend to blur the boundaries between a critical appraisal of a job done and a criticism of the person doing it.” My question here would be what can feedback givers do to prevent this?

    You write that saying someone “has not been able to contribute very much to the team.” Is a statement of fact. I won’t disagree with this but I will wonder how useful that fact is for the receiver and how much room for disagreement there is. I feel like this fact could be broken into more manageable and hear-able parts.

    To give an (admittedly simple) example. If I was told factually that I was 5 min late for the past three meetings and that I didn’t submit my reports on time I would take this a s factual information that I would improve on. If I were told that I didn’t contribute much to the team I would probably have my hackles up and would be disagreeing and responding in an emotional way.

    Thanks for the very interesting blog.
    (I just realized this post was from Feb 2012 but I will post my comments anyway)

    Comment by mikecorea | 14 Jan 2013 | Reply

  2. Hi Mike
    Thanks for joining the conversation. I’m going to take issue with your interpretation that I am placing the blame on anybody. I don’t think I am; I know that I don’t intend to. One of the concepts that I try to establish at work is that accountability is not necessarily synonymous with blame.

    In this case, the teacher had been involved in a project that took her away from the team and which did not benefit the team. She was responding to a comment of mine that her project had not made any direct contribution to the team and that this year she should try to choose objectives that would help us consolidate our gains as a team and address our weaknesses. Se took it to mean that I was criticising her; it may indeed have been to ambigous a comment. However, what fascinates me is the willingness to assume the worst.

    Your question about what feedback givers can do is an interesting one. I’d say that feedback givers need to be able to make an utter balls up of whatever they are trying to do. It is as much the responsibility of the receiver to ensure that the message communicated is the correct one.This is something that I have long sought to both mast and implement. If I say something that sounds horrendously offensive to your ears, it is your responsibility to assume that I could not possibly mean what you have understood and to seek confirming evidence that your interpretation is viable. If I give you reason enough to believe that I am trying to offend, then by all means, let me have it. Both barrels.

    An example, I was once walking in a country. A man walked past me and pointed at something I was wearing. “The dog’s bollocks!” He said. My limited understanding of the language meant that I thought I was being insulted. Thin drawn lips and spittle flecked rage took over as impossitively SPAT at him, “YOU, SIRRAH, ARE THE DOG’S BOLLOCKS!!! YOU!!!! NOT ME!!!!!” How much better it would have been if I had remembered my own advice and assumed that he wouldn’t be having a go but that I must have misunderstood him…

    My lifetime ambition is to be able to practise at least a little of what I preach!

    Comment by thesecretdos | 14 Jan 2013 | Reply

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.
    Also thanks for not interpreting my use of the word “blame” as direct attack.
    (I apologize for my misinterpretation /misuse of the word)

    You give a lot to think about here.

    I find myself wondering if there are some elements of feedback receiver “training” that folks in your situation might consider employing. I don’t have much of an idea what it might entail but I think it could be helpful in preventing things from getting out of hand.

    I currently run a course for public school teachers in Korea to become better observers/helpers (feedback givers) to other teachers in their schools. One thing that always comes up is the emphasis on tailoring the message for the receiver but not the reverse. Course participants always lament the fact that teachers are so sensitive and so likely to take things “the wrong way.” I don’t really have too much to say about this except to wonder what we, as feedback givers, can do to help make sure that our message is not so easily taken in the wrong way.

    You write, “It is as much the responsibility of the receiver to ensure that the message communicated is the correct one.” While I can’t really disagree with you on this, and in the absence of the receiver training I mentioned above I am inclined to think that the burden is on the giver because we know how sensitive/stressful/whatever it can be.

    It seems to me that for many people the majority of experiences receiving feedback (on pre-service courses or as new teachers) have been negative and probably not so helpful. With this in mind I think a lot of the burden falls on the giver to make it clear that this experience (as I am sure you intend) is different than those in the past and is related to improvement and doing more/better for team. I guess what I’m saying is that (unfortunately) feedback givers have the additional responsibility of dealing with all the past wrongs listeners have experienced.

    If you are interested, here is an account of my experiences as an observee.

    Thanks again for the response.

    Comment by mikecorea | 15 Jan 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you! It’s the conversation that generates the learning so I am very grateful for your engagement!

      I agree with the spirit of what you write ;-). But I think that the metaphor of giver and receiver is not the most helpful. Communication should emerge out of the clash of (at least) two thinking people. The meaning of what is said is determined purely by how effective the two people are. IMHO, I should add…

      In the situation that we are talking about, I think the giver should come to the conversation in good faith. They are not there to humiliate, denigrate or subordinate. They are there to pass on constructive criticism of what they have seen. The receiver’s obligation is to interpret every comment in the light of this assumption. If they have cause to think that this assumption is wrong, they have a duty to check that this is indeed the case before they react to it. Of course, the giver has a duty to ensure that the feedback that they are passing on is being given in the spirit of the constructive criticism. This would not be a good example:

      G: Dude, your teaching blows hot chunks.
      R: [thinking] WTF? How in the name of all that is sacred am I meant to take this as constructive. [speaking] Screw you!
      G: Screw you too, man. And the horse you rode in on.
      R: Right. That’s it. I’m unionising your ass.

      Another poor example might be:

      G: Whoah! You’re teaching is siiiiiick!
      R: [thinking] WTF? How in the name of all that is sacred am I meant to take this as constructive. [speaking] Screw you!
      G: WTF?! What’s wrong with you?
      R: I’m unionising your ass.

      But what transpired in my case was more like this:

      G: So, with the project etc, your targets were more centred around your own personal development than around forwarding the team’s goals. This year, it would be good if we can set targets that allow you to contribute towards the team’s goals.
      R: But that was only because the project didn’t involve the team. It did contribute towards the centre though.
      G: Absolutely. I’m not saying that it was bad! Just that I’d like us to set targets this year that are more specific to the goals of the team.
      R: Right.
      …days later…
      R: I want to talk to you about the other day. I am very angry.
      G: Really? Why?
      R: You said that I never contribute anything to the team.
      G: [thinking] WTF? etc.

      However, I think your point about the giver being aware of the emotional investment of the teacher is a very, very important one. And one that I may at times be a bit too blithe about. On reflection, I wonder if this is one of those things where I think along the lines of Oh well, they shouldn’t feel that way so I am going to act as if they don’t…Something I will indeed monitor more carefully over the coming weeks.

      Thanks for the link to your blogpost. That’s where I’m off to now.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 16 Jan 2013 | Reply

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