Public humiliation is not feedback

@mick_maguire asked me about “Differentiation” and how it could possibly fit with an Agile team.

It can’t. Not with any team.

Mick also pointed me to a blog post where the writer, a fan of Differentiation, described how he implemented the process on his team.

As a part of this meeting, each member of the team must select the people who they believe to be in the bottom 10%. On our team 10% is one person. We do not publicly discuss why they were chosen. But they are encouraged to meet with the person to get feedback during the next iteration. After the exchange of the bottom 10%, each person must select the top 20% and during the meeting explain why they picked them as a top performer.

We publicly select the top 20% and the bottom 10%, and publicly state why top performers are in the top 20%. We allow each member to privately receive feedback from members so they can improve and know where they stand within the team.

(The writer also describes “continuous feedback” as process where team members give each other “praise and criticism.”  Feedback is information, not evaluation, not criticism, not blame.)

I’ve talked to a number of people in different organizations who went through a public process that required each person to praise and criticize other group members. They described the process as humiliating–both when receiving praise and criticism.

The blogger admitted that the process was humiliating on his team, too. He stopped it after 3 or 4 rounds.  I bet the damage outlasted the few weeks the they used this horrible process.

So what is “Differentiation”?  It’s the practice of identifying 20% of the people in the organization as stars, 10% as cull, and lumping the remaining 70% in the middle. Welch justifies “Differentiation” on his observations and recollection of how kids choose schoolyard baseball teams.

We aren’t playing baseball, we’re doing knowledge work. Surely, we can do better with adults in the work place.

I find it’s more effective to focus on building teams who produce great results and organizations that are designed to produce value and support people to do excellent work. Identifying the top 20% and bottom 10% of an organization won’t help with that.

Most people fall within a normal a range of capability, and have both strengths and weaknesses.  Put them together with other people with complimentary skills and compensating strengths and they can achieve more than a group of competing individuals.

It doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who is “best” and “worse” on a team. I care about how they work together on a team level.  I care about creating work places that work, and work systems that enable people to do their best.

Of course, there are people who outperform the system, or underperform the system.  Treat them as exceptions.  But for heaven’s sake don’t subject everyone to a ranking scheme or humiliating public criticism.

26 Replies to “Public humiliation is not feedback”

  1. Just the idea of me asking my team to single out 1 or more members (publicly) to say they are at the bottom sends shivers down my spine. I understand we can’t all have teammates who sit on the far right of the bell curve. But, these are people, not statistics. Once you do something like this, the damage can not be undone.

    I had a Director, a few years back, who was going through an MBA “leadership” program. He came back to the office and tried this process on us. It was awkward from start to finish. I don’t know if he thought we’d all hug it out after or what. Regardless, the relationship between the management team was never the same.

    • Hi, Derek –

      I believe that people need information about their work….I don’t see how “knowing where you stand” in a ranking of the team helps either the individual or the team.

      Processes like this damage relationships within the team, and as you point out between the manager and team.


  2. There’s an interesting language/mindset issue at play here, too. I’ve heard this referred to as “growth mindset” vs “fixed mindset”, or “essentialism” vs “phenomenalism”, or “correspondence bias”.

    In either case the idea is to distinguish who people *are* from what people *do*. There’s a difference between saying “X’s contribution in the past iteration was the least helpful” and “X is the worst performer here”. The former may be a factual matter, settled by observation. The latter is a generalization, not very likely to be true in the long term or in a wide range of situations.

    Of course, the best isn’t to tell someone that their contribution was “best” or “worst” in a given iteration, the best is to tell them *how their contribution fell short* and *what they could do to improve*.

    • Hi, Laurent –

      Interesting points.

      I find it ironic that these ranking schemes say they are about helping people improve (movement) when the language use often implies a static state (no movement).

      When managers use static language to describe people they make it harder to notice when people actually do improve or do something that conflicts with the label.

      Jerry Weinberg tells a story about when he had a job grading college papers. When the professor reviewed the grades Jerry had assigned, he over-ruled an A that Jerry had granted,–without looking at the paper–because in the professors assessment, the person receiving the A was “a C student.” Obviously, a “C student” was not capable of producing a paper that deserved an A.

  3. Well written. I find it fascinating to see this practice inspired by “baseball team selection” (because enough adults obviously weren’t emotionally scarred enough by this as a kid).

    Do you think you could post the link to the blog post you talk about? Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • Hi, Pat-

      I chose not to include the link to the blogger. He’s just a dude trying to make his way in the world. I commented on his blog, he got that the process was destructive. No need to publicly humiliate him by naming him here.

      Welch’s ideas about Differentiation are all too easy to find on the internet.

  4. Thank you for your efforts to push the world in the direction of being, well, just a bit more … human, Esther. If, on a bad, day, you think people haven’t noticed, or don’t appreciate it (we all have bad days), please think again.

    all my best!

  5. Got directed to this post, via Mick’s RT. LOVE IT….with your permission, I’d like to send the following out to everyone who follows me on twitter and link to this post…

    “We aren’t playing baseball, we’re doing knowledge work. Surely, we can do better with adults in the work place.”

    I cannot tell you how deeply relevant this is in the workplace today.

    • Of course.

      I suspect we have both seen the damage that such practices do. The challenge is to change the thinking that leads to these practices in the first place.

  6. Thanks for a great post – well said!

    “We aren’t playing baseball, we’re doing knowledge work. Surely, we can do better with adults in the work place.” – Thanks for pointing that out! The reason that this process has a place in professional sports is that sports is a 0-sum game whereas it is unnecessary in the workplace as it’s a non-zeor sum game.

    • Hi, Sandy –

      And even on sports teams, it’s not always zero-sum within in team. Sadly, many managers seem to think that software teams are more like ski teams than soccer teams or basketball teams.

  7. It makes me shutter to think there would be “leaders” if you could call them leaders that would devolve to such a state that they believe criticism would some how inspire others to better perform.

    In my opinion, it is that type of leadership, and team building approach that only weakens the team. Not make it stronger…..

    • Agreed. Ranking within a team, especially in a public and humiliating process won’t return better results, unless the goal is competition.

      But the thought process behind such processes reflects what managers have been exposed to since they were children. Most of us are subjected to various sorts of rating and ranking from the time we are 4 or 5 years old. Sad.

  8. Interesting that “differentiation” is almost a perfect team-destroying exercise.

    Having had management (in the past) inflict this idea down onto my teams, I can say this practice is horrible, horrible, horrible – for everyone involved.

    For me – The only advantage I found from it, was that it was an excellent litmus test. People that like this process are people I want no association with.

    • Hi, Griffin –

      Yes, it would be hard to come up with a better team-breaking activity. But as you point out, it’s information about mental models of management.

  9. I appreciate your taking this on, Esther. It’s easy (for me) to look at “Differentiation” and say “EWWW!” but harder to talk about *how* it’s yucky.

    And I especially appreciate that you distinguish between information and criticism. (“Feedback is information, not evaluation, not criticism, not blame.”) That distinction is such an important part of honest communication.

  10. Any system that introduces a “Lord of the Flies” mentality to a team can be very destructive. Rather than having people working hard towards the betterment of themselves or the team, you end up turning the workplace into a popularity contest in which, generally, no one wins.

  11. If you have ever read Welch’s work you realize that he is talking about middle and upper management. He rarely talks about dealing with frontline employees. Thus, he is dealing with knowledge workers in the truest sense of the term.

    In my opinion the real reason this practice isn’t effective with technology workers is the large number of fragile egos in the field. For me it was a culture shock coming into software from a largely blue-collar background. In my old world pointed feedback was essential to improving performance. Most technology workers in my experience aren’t able to handle the thought that they aren’t as smart as they think they are.

    If you can’t admit you are wrong or have deficiencies then you are unlikely to ever grow.

    The key then is to find a method of coaching or mentoring that enables people with fragile egos to recognize deficiencies in a safe environment. Differentiation is definitely NOT that safe environment!

    • Matt –

      I agree that people need information in order to improve.

      I don’t know what you mean by “pointed feedback.” I do know that the way feedback is delivered plays a big part in whether the other person can hear it.


      • Agreed. Crucial Conversations was one of the first books I read after getting into software. That book along with Communication Gaps by Naomi Karten was crucial in improving my communication in the tech world.

        Pointed feedback in the blue collar world is as simple as “you are doing it wrong… do it this way.” If you say that to a developer, the ensuing religious war is rarely productive or informative.

        Better is “I like how you solved that problem. [stroke the ego] The other day I read a blog article by X [appeal to the desire to be well known] that showed a new way of doing it. [appeal to desire to try new things] I haven’t given it a shot yet but it might be worth checking into if you have time [appeal to desire to be the first to learn something].”

        I know this sounds cynical but then my personal preference is still to be told “look Matt… you are doing it wrong” but that’s just me. 🙂

        • Both the books you mention are worth reading.

          Part of the issue is that so much of what goes on in software shops is shades of gray. There are better ways and worse ways, good engineering practices and hacks. When there isn’t agreement within the group what those better ways and good practices are, it ends up as a debate. So telling some one “You’re doing it wrong” becomes not a matter of fact, but personal opinion. And it gets into the big game of who gets to tell who what to do.

          Your description sounds like you are trying to influence. Not a bad thing. You might consider talking about the impact the actions you are attempting to influence. Then it doesn’t feel so arbitrary.

          • Shades of gray aren’t just in the tech world. Every guy on an assembly line has opinions on how things should be done as does every middle manager at a finance firm on Wall Street.

            I think the difference lies not so much in the opinion-based nature of our work but rather the creativity-based nature of our work.

            Alfie Kohn’s conclusions about the negative impact of rewards and punishment on creativity come to life in Robert Austin’s book on Measuring and Managing Performance. Saying “that is wrong” can stifle creative thinking… but so can telling someone “if you do it right I will give you a bonus.”

            It seems that Welch’s Differentiation would be detrimental in building an environment that encourages creativity.

            Interesting stuff… thanks for the article and the feedback!

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