Saturday, October 01, 2005

Corrective Feedback Ray Miller Style:
Indirect Percussion at Camden Yards  

To get better performance from most of your contributors, you will have to provide negative feedback sometimes. A small minority of people who are capable of being high-performers just need to be kicked in the rear repeatedly, but most people with that personality quirk usually don't provide a lot of torque in the workplace.

Others fear being confronted with their lack of perfection. A good friend of mine has as his key junior business partner a woman who is ultra-defensive. Perhaps "Rafaelia" had a hypercritical parent, but she exudes this small toxic death zone around herself that seems designed to make it massively punishing to offer any feedback that's not positive, so that those around her will not give any. The personal equivalent of Mohammar Ghaddafi's Line of Death. The problem here isn't just unpleasantness in the immediate moment -- it makes it expensive to even make non-negative corrections. Every conversation becomes larded up with the overhead of having to step carefully around her potential buried anti-personnel mines or, just wading in and wasting energy sniping back and forth. A small but guaranteed cost in every interaction.

Most people, even the ones who are not as hyper-defensive as Rafaelia have responses that have an emotional component, and depending on the person, that emotion (shame, fear, remorse, sorrow, anger, and others) can distract the recipient from being able to fully internalize the corrective information. If you want corrective information to correct as opposed to punish (any they are mutually exclusive) you want total focus on the content of your feedback. Ironically, many bosses jump to sharp anger as the first approach for corrective feedback, usually because their own dominant parent proffered them corrective feedback that way. This approach will, for most recipients, be a guaranteed loser.

Giving feedback is an essential part of Second Base in the MBB Model, and sometimes that feedback is going to be corrective. Since there is no single technique that works for everyone, it can be a booger. Here's one I find very interesting from a person I find really interesting. It should work for most contributors who don't require being beaten over the head and shamed whenever they fall short or make a mistake (it won't work for them at all). I call it Ray Miller's Reprimand by Indirect Percussion.

Miller has a perspective unique in post-WWII baseball for the strength of his job experience moving back and forth between being a pitching coach and a major league manager. His coaching career took him through the Baltimore Oriole system during the Paul Richards era. Those Orioles revolutionized baseball process by combining making methods uniform throughout a minor and major league system with an investment in human factors. The Orioles were very early in attending to psychology as part of the overall coaching/training effort.

Miller was a highly-honored pitching coach for some of the great Oriole teams (1978-84), became a manager in Minnesota (1985-86) and headed the turnaround in Minnesota's systems and methods that led to their first-ever World Series winning team (1987) which he was not there to share in. He chose to go back to being a pitching coach (Pittsburgh, 1987-96, Baltimore, 1997) and then a manager again (1998-99). He came out of retirement last season when Oriole GM Mike Flanagan, a product of Miller's (and of other O's coaches of that era) coaching craft asked Miller to be the pitching coach. Flanagan had won the Cy Young Award in 1979 and hoped that Miller could do for Flanagan's young pitching staff what he'd done for the young Oriole pitching staff when Flanagan was coming up. He runs a small business, too, so he has a business perspective about people management, as well.

The other unusual combination trait Miller has is he's got enough self-confidence to take a "demotion", that is from manager to pitching coach, a position that reports to a manager. Most people don't have the huevos to do that, but he is extraordinary and very sure of himself.

Miller's immediate effect on being brought on in the middle of the 2004 season was sharp. Orioles starter ERA was 5.94 in the part of the season before Miller was there, and 4.44 after he arrived, a full 1.50 difference, part or much of which has to be ascribed to his techniques. He's a winner, and we have many lessons to learn from his craft. Here's one for the frequently tricky moment of negative feedback.

Miller invites the manager to yell at him publicly when a pitcher has earned a reprimand for sloppy fundamentals or bad concentration. The manager turns to Miller and describes, in whatever loud language he chooses, what the failure was and why it was bad.

"The manager can jump around and yell at me, and the pitchers can all see that. Then they look to see if I jump the guy when he comes off the field, and I never say anything. Conversely, sometimes the guy is pitching a great game and makes a bad situation pitch, and the manager's screaming, and I'll touch the manager on the arm in front of the pitcher and say, 'I told him to throw that pitch'. The manager will shut up and go sit down."

By doing this, Ray preserves respect for the pitcher, and the pitcher sees a vivid example of his coach standing up for him. More importantly, the pitcher and all the other pitchers get to hear from the manager exactly what he did wrong without having it directed at him. Corrective criticism, but not colored by the shame or being chewed out publicly, as I said, emotions that can distract the pitcher from focusing on the mental aspects of the error and fixing it, which is truly the purpose of the corrective feedback.

Emulate Miller if you have your superior's respect, and your superior knows enough about the craft to criticize meaningfully and you have an agreement with him to play this scene when needed. It buys successfully imparted wisdom, an easier reprimand for the contributor to internalize and long-term loyalty from the contributor to you.

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