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What is Weaponized Feedback? | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

Businessman with bat symbolizing weaponized feedback

Has so-called “constructive feedback” ever been used to undermine you or someone you know?  If so, you’ve probably experienced what I refer to as “weaponized feedback”.  And from what I’ve observed during my work with companies as a business psychologist, weaponized feedback is a widespread and ongoing problem.

The most important element (and litmus test) of truly constructive feedback is that it’s helpful to the person it is given to.  Even other well-accepted components of constructive feedback, such as including specific examples, delivering it in a timely manner, etc., are effective because they contribute to making the feedback helpful to the person receiving it.

In contrast, however, weaponized feedback is used to undermine the person it is given to, usually for someone else’s gain.  For example, imagine a low-performing manager who feels outshined by a direct report who is doing exceptionally well, and fears he will soon lose his job to the high-performing employee.  Now imagine that the manager gives negative feedback to the high-performing direct report about being “too assertive”, “setting goals too high”, or “overstepping boundaries”.  While the manager may present the feedback as helpful, it isn’t actually rooted in helping the employee.  Instead, the feedback stems from the manager’s fear of losing his job to his direct report, and is intended to keep the direct report from advancing.  Moreover, it’s possible that the manager doesn’t even realize he is giving negative feedback for his own gain.  Rather, by looking through the distorted lens of fear, he may perceive his direct report to be problematic and deserving of the negative feedback.

Similarly, weaponized feedback can be difficult to discern from constructive feedback because it is often presented under the guise of being well-intentioned.  As such, it’s important to critically evaluate feedback before giving it merit or acting upon it, especially if you are a manager or Human Resources professional who receives feedback about your direct reports or company employees.

With that in mind, the context or situation associated with the feedback can provide useful clues for determining if the feedback is undermining.  For example, here are a few contexts or “watch-out” situations that can contribute to weaponized feedback:

Competition –  When employees compete for promotions, salary raises, or even praise from their managers, weaponized feedback can proliferate.  Just like the example provided earlier about the low-performing manager being concerned about losing his job to his high-performing direct report, negative feedback can be misused to gain an unfair advantage in a competitive situation.

Social Cliques – Social cliques within organizations, almost by definition, tend to create an “us versus them” mentality (e.g., if you’re not an accepted member of the group, you’re perceived as an outsider).  Similarly, some social cliques tend to breed gossip and even coordinated efforts to undermine people outside of the group (e.g., “smear campaigns”).  If negative feedback or criticism stems from members of a social clique and targets a person outside of the group, it’s wise to consider if the feedback has been weaponized.

Envy – Instances where one employee wants what another has can also lead to weaponized feedback.  A corner office, higher pay, a reserved parking spot, etc., can incite others to become envious, and in turn, lead them to conjure negative feedback about the person who has the desired accolades.

Mistakes and Failures – As you probably know, situations in which mistakes or failures occur can quickly lead to finger-pointing and blame (e.g., a lost client, botched product launch, etc.).  Worse, that blame can often take the form of negative feedback levied upon people associated with the failure, regardless of whether something they did actually caused the mistake.  With that in mind, it is especially important to carefully consider the validity of negative feedback associated with an incident of failure, as many people assume that negative feedback is true when it is linked to a negative outcome.

In sum, it is important to consider 1) if feedback is helpful to the person receiving it, and 2) the context from which feedback stems, when evaluating if it is genuinely constructive or weaponized in disguise.

More tips can be found in the article How to Give Negative Feedback or the video version of the article, both by Dr. Gary Dumais, Business Psychologist at Select Human Resources in Philadelphia.

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Gary Dumais Assessment Tools Metaphor

Best Practices for Assessing Job Candidates | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

What is a “candidate selection assessment”?

When I moved to Philadelphia about ten years ago, I was surprised to find that many companies had never heard of a “selection assessment”.  Instead, they were using only traditional candidate screening methods such as interviews and reference checks.  I found this to be especially interesting given that surrounding cities like New York and Washington, DC were saturated with management consulting firms, and many of the best companies nationwide require a selection assessment for any candidate seeking to be hired or promoted into an important role.

Put simply, a candidate selection assessment uses certain “tests” or other evaluative measures to gauge how effective an applicant will be in meeting the demands of a role.  These assessments can take many forms, ranging from “paper-and-pencil” questionnaires, to online surveys, or live simulations where candidates are observed while engaging in staged scenarios that reflect job duties (e.g., like coaching an underperforming employee or responding to an inbox full of emails).

The idea of using psychological assessments to screen candidates has been around for much longer than most people think.  Many textbooks cite the United States Military during World War I as being one of the first to use personality assessments to screen out applicants unsuitable for combat.  The benefits of implementing such a practice (e.g., saving thousands of lives and countless other resources) goes without stating.

What are some best practices for assessing job candidates?

As alluded to previously, there is a wide variety of candidate selection measures, spanning written questionnaires to online surveys and role-plays complete with actors and trained observers.  An exhaustive review of every kind of assessment available could easily fill a book, and is therefore beyond the scope of this article.  However, I will provide some useful advice that Human Resource professionals and others (e.g., hiring managers) can utilize when considering methods:

Use a “multi-assessment” approach

Human beings are complicated.  In fact, the human brain is the most complicated “thing” ever known.  No single test could ever fully evaluate a person’s personality, talents, skills, and so on.

This is perhaps most evident in clinical psychology’s approach to measuring intelligence or IQ.  IQ tests are comprised of several smaller “subtests” that span math, vocabulary, non-verbal reasoning, etc.  A person’s performance on each subtest is taken into consideration when deriving an overall IQ score.  In comparison, it’s easy to see how making conclusions about people’s intelligence based only on their math skills would be inaccurate.

The same principle holds true when assessing a candidate’s suitability for a role; multiple assessment measures are needed to uncover the full story.  I typically include at least two different tests of peoples’ reasoning skills, two personality assessments, a measure of their approach to conflict resolution, and assessments of their motivation and emotional intelligence, among others.

Using more than one assessment may seem like overkill, but in my experience, it’s truly necessary for arriving at valid conclusions.  For example, imagine a person performs in the below-average range (in comparison to other managers) on a timed test of their problem-solving abilities (e.g., he’s given fifteen minutes to complete it).  Based on that one test result, you may conclude that the person’s problem-solving abilities are not very good.

Now imagine the same person is given an untimed test of his problem-solving abilities (e.g., he can take as much time as he wants), and he performs in the above-average range.  What would you now conclude about his problem-solving abilities?  Are they below-average or above-average?  The testing results seem to conflict.

Next, imagine the person is also given a personality assessment, and the results indicate he is much more meticulous, detail oriented, and concerned about making mistakes than the average manager.  Now the real story begins to unfold; the person likely has above-average problem-solving skills, but his tendency to be careful and meticulous slows him down and detracts from his performance when taking a timed test.

So, in conclusion, the person will be adept at problem-solving, except in situations when he must make decisions quickly.  -That’s very useful information to have when deciding the best role for a candidate, and it was found by taking a multi-assessment approach.

Clearly define the competencies required for success in a role, and use assessments that measure those competencies

It’d be impossible to know if a candidate is suited for a role without knowing what’s needed for success in that role.  With that in mind, it’s crucial to 1) define the competencies a position requires, 2) ensure the assessment measures used will provide sufficient information about a candidate’s proficiency in each of those competencies, and 3) have a summary report that clearly describes how a candidate performed in each competency so conclusions can be drawn about his or her strengths, weaknesses, and overall level of fit for the role.

In addition, it’s important to ensure that the number of competencies are balanced across job requirements and are not too numerous to be practical.  For example, I’ve seen instances where the job description lists only thinking-related competencies such as problem-solving (e.g., for an engineer role), or only results-related competencies such as delegating (e.g., for a manager role), or only people-related competencies like relationship building (e.g., for a sales role).  With that in mind, I recommend that each job description (and candidate selection assessment) cover competencies in the areas of Thinking, Results, and People to be comprehensive.  At the same time, however, it’s also important to ensure that the list of competencies is not excessively long.  In my experience, three to four competencies in each area (Thinking, Results, and People) is ideal.

Use an external consultant or consulting firm

While it may seem more cost-effective and convenient to do candidate selection assessments “in-house” (e.g., by using your company’s Human Resource department), it’s prone to result in complications and biased hiring decisions that end-up costing the company far more.

No matter how objective hiring managers, human resource professionals, and other people within a company may endeavor to be, they feel pressure to fill open positions as quickly as possible.  Likewise, organizational politics are always a factor.  For example, a Vice President or Director may favor a candidate, making it difficult for anyone lower in the organization to disagree, even if they have assessment information that indicates the candidate would be a poor fit.

In comparison, it’s easier for outside consultants to be objective and make recommendations that “go against the grain”, when necessary.  This is especially important because, most often, selection assessments are only conducted on finalists (e.g., candidates who have great resumes, passed the preliminary interviews, have been nominated for promotion, etc.).  With that in mind, it can be particularly challenging for an internal employee to advocate against hiring a candidate based on assessment results when their coworkers already favor the candidate and are eager to get the position filled.

In sum, outside consultants are less impacted by organizational politics, and are therefore better-equipped to make objective/data-driven decisions (which is the goal of using candidate selection assessments in the first place).

Leverage assessment information beyond the selection decision

Finally, I recommend that you use the wealth of information that comes from a properly conducted candidate assessment for more than the selection or promotion decision.

Just like many other aspects of the selection process, such as reference checks, no information is shared with candidates who are not selected.  However, after a decision is made to hire or promote, it can be tremendously useful to review the assessment information with candidates as part of their onboarding process (e.g., so they are aware of the strengths they can leverage in their new role and what weaknesses they’ll have to address).  Ideally, the assessment information would be incorporated into an onboarding plan or a development plan to maximize the person’s professional growth.

Moreover, selected candidates feel rewarded for the time and effort they put into the process by receiving the information and gaining helpful insights.  Likewise, they begin their new role knowing the company cares about their success and has equipped them to excel.

You can learn more about me by visiting garydumais.com.  Also, free tips and advice can be found at my blog (garydumais.net) and my YouTube channel (youtube.com/channel/UCmRvjywXN9_9f4F5GNl3Sqg).

How to Give Negative Feedback | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

Gary Dumais giving feedback

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback?  Well, to fully experience and understand the tip I’m about to share with you, I invite you to think about a time when somebody really helped you out.  Maybe recall an instance when your car broke down and a friend picked you up, or a team member helped you meet a deadline, or someone gave you support during a difficult time.  Now think back to how you felt when that person helped you out.  Feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and even relief probably come to mind.

Feedback can have a similar impact, even if the feedback is “negative”.  Just like how you’d feel if a friend quietly let you know before attending a big meeting that you had a piece of salad stuck in your teeth; you might be slightly embarrassed initially, but overall, you’d be very thankful for the helpful feedback.

And that is the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback.  Our thoughts have a strong influence on how we behave.  For example, if you’re thinking about the happiest moment in your life, people will likely notice a smile on your face and a spring in your step.  Likewise, if you’re thinking about helping someone with feedback, your tone, choice of words, and mannerisms will reflect that, and the person you’re speaking with is more likely to be open to what you have to say.

It may sound simple, but it’s much easier said than done.  In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve noticed that many managers have difficulty giving negative feedback because they get caught-up in thinking about how others will become upset, disappointed, or even volatile.  Those thoughts are then unconsciously transmitted through the managers’ tone, mannerisms, and so on, and the people receiving the feedback sense it and become defensive.

With all that in mind, before giving negative feedback, I recommend you take a moment to get in the right frame of mind by recalling an instance when someone truly helped you, and remembering how good that felt.  Then, think through how your feedback will be helpful to the person you’re delivering it to (e.g., make them more effective, help them to advance, etc.) so you can be sure to explain and emphasize those points (e.g., by using the “What’s In It For You” principle).

Finally, if you ever find it difficult to identify how a piece of feedback would be helpful to a person, that’s a clear indication to reexamine if the feedback really has merit or is truly worthwhile to share.

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