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“Why The F Did You Do That?” - Things You Shouldn't Say To Employees (formal and informal feedback)

Megaphone shouting at employee across the desk

Why do football managers continue to get away with insults even though studies show negative feedback is detrimental to work?

“Why The F Did You Do That?” And Other Things You Should Not Say To Employees

I was watching the Mexico-Argentina during the World Cup and noticed the manager of the former screaming at a player. Someone on the right wing had played a pass to another player who wasn’t in a position to receive it and duly lost it to the other side. Watching with the benefit of television, no pressure and an absence of the skill that would allow me to execute it, I could clearly see there was a wonderful cross-field ball that the player could have played that would have set their left winger up with a great chance.

The Mexico manager had also seen this option. He stood up, ran towards the player, and shouted, “Why the F did you do that?!”. This is something relatively common in football; you see it all the time. However, it got me thinking.

When someone does something stupid at work, or something that at least is perceived as ridiculous at the time, you wouldn't expect a manager to shout that to an employee, right? For one, you just cannot use that type of language, but more importantly, most people in the workplace know that giving people negative (and let's be honest, very vague) feedback only has an adverse effect. Calling someone stupid? Well, that surely doesn't work if you're trying to make them reflect and improve. So, why does this still happen in football?

Failure to Understand

One of the first things that came to mind when I saw the interaction between the Mexican manager and the player was that he might have actually been trying to do something different. Something creative. Because you can't really tell what someone's motive is unless you give them a chance to explain. In this case, not all football strategies are clear, and the ones that fail can be particularly obscure.

Who knows, this might have been a genius play that just went wrong. But even if it wasn't genius, by shouting like that, this man just discouraged the player from being creative and trying new ideas. And taking risks! Which is something you probably want to let people do if you want to develop innovative products or win the World Cup.

So, to sum up: Telling someone that something they did or said is stupid is just an awful thing to do. It's interesting that these top-notch teams are talking to each other using that kind of language. Is this an example of leadership? And do they really think it works? I must have missed Mexico's world cup winning celebration.

The fact is that negative feedback is generally considered something detrimental to performance, and this applies to sport just like it does to an organization.

Things You Shouldn’t Do As An Employer

Did you know that one of the worst things you can do as a leader is to give an employee negative feedback? Mark Robb often talks about this in his workshops. He identifies 106 performance drivers and divides them into different groups. These are:

  • A-Level Strategies: These strategies encompass nine approaches that result in the most significant improvements in employee performance. These include fair and accurate informal feedback, formal reviews based on strengths, and better internal communication, among others. So, the first thing that stands out here: If you want to see positive change, start by providing positive and clear feedback.

  • B-Level Strategies: These approaches are capable of improving performance by 10 to 25% and have a generally positive impact on the workforce. B-Level strategies include things like a manager offering solutions to problems or breaking down projects into more manageable components.

  • C-Level Strategies: The largest of the four groups, these strategies can have a small to no impact on performance and include, for example, future orientation, technical training, or new employee orientation. They are, in a way, neutral (that is, in terms of performance. Of course, they will have several other benefits we're not covering here).

  • D-Level Strategies: The last approach includes seven strategies that actually decrease employee performance. Robb warns people to safeguard against these factors. These can be things like using rank-ordering, increasing the number of yearly formal reviews, and making frequent changes to people’s projects.

So, do you want to guess where formal and informal negative feedback falls within these strategies? That’s right; they are D-level. Of the 106 things you as an employer can do, only these four will have this negative effect:

  • Informal feedback based on personality weaknesses (3.2% decrease in performance).

  • Formal reviews based on personality weaknesses (5.5% decrease in performance).

  • Informal feedback based on performance weaknesses (10.9% decrease in performance).

  • Formal reviews based on performance weaknesses (26.8% decrease in performance).

Person with hands over their mouth, purple background

Why Focusing on Weaknesses is a Terrible Idea (And What To Do Instead)

If I pick on an employee and give them negative feedback (as we just saw, it doesn't really matter if it's done in an informal or formal way), it will only affect their performance negatively. Basically, it will not have achieved anything that day and only made things go backwards for both the employee and probably the company as a whole.

So, what’s the alternative? Simple: To give feedback of a positive nature and make the process part of a larger strategy that places its focus on fairness, openness, and clarity.

For instance, when there is a 360-degree review available, individual performance can be increased by 8%, and when an employee understands performance standards, this number increases to a whooping 36%. Cultural traits can also be large drivers. Risk taking, internal communication, and differential treatment for best and worst performers had a positive effect of 39%, 34%, and 1.5%, respectively.

However, some of the largest differences can be seen when we talk about informal and formal feedback. For example, fairness and accuracy when providing informal feedback can increase performance by 39% and putting emphasis on personality strengths 22.3%. For formal feedback, the largest improvement, of 36.4%, can be seen when focusing more on performance strengths.

The Corporate Leadership Council (now Gartner HR) recommends you do this using three main approaches:

  • Organization: You can use a performance management system to ensure employees understand the standards you will be using to judge their work. The system should always be fair and link to a broader organizational strategy and success. Also, it's important for an employer to provide feedback from multiple sources. From a performance culture point of view, you should also encourage but manage risk-taking. Lastly, institutionalize openness and treat strong and weak performers differentially.

  • Manager: In terms of interaction, make sure your employees can always find tangible solutions to their specific work challenges (for example, resources, information, and technology that can assist them. Inconsistent or unclear expectations are performance killers). During your formal reviews, it's essential to emphasize positive aspects of a person's performance. If you need to address weaknesses, you should do so by focusing on specific suggestions so they can improve those particular aspects of their job. Always include a discussion about the employee's long-term career objectives and manage informal feedback in a fair and accurate way that is at the same time positive, immediate, and detailed.

  • Employee: Match employees to jobs and take time to explain the big picture. People perform better if they know what's expected of them and how their work contributes to the success of the organization (actually, having a personal connection to a job can drive employee performance much better than promising bonuses and hinting at future promotions). Do not forget to also provide opportunities for people to leverage their strengths and offer relevant and specific training.


It still amazes me to see how, even though negative feedback has proven only to demotivate people, football managers continue to get away with it. It is simply unbelievable that this can happen at such a top level, and I honestly have no clue why it's still allowed.

This might change in the future (Mexico beat Saudi Arabia but was eliminated from the World Cup and finished third in its group), but football can be slow to adjust. Your workplace, though, that's an entirely different beast.

The best way to improve performance, no matter if we’re talking about a football player or a company employee, is to provide informed, fair, positive, accurate, and detailed feedback. Communication stands at the heart of any strategy to drive performance.

So, no matter how frustrated you feel when someone does something incomprehensible… take a step back. Think in terms of specific, actionable suggestions, and consider the ways in which you can improve your company's culture through rich, valuable feedback. But most important of all: Do NOT call them stupid!


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