Joel Brockner: The Passion Plea

This post originally appears on the blog of Psychology Today

BrocknerIt’s tough to argue with the idea that passion is an admirable aspect of the human condition. Passionate people are engaged in life; they really care about their values and causes and being true to them. However, a big minefield of passion is when people use it to excuse or explain away unseemly behavior. We saw this during the summer of 2017 in how the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responded to the infamous expletive-laced attack of Anthony Scaramucci on his then fellow members of the Trump team, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. According to The New York Times, (July 27, 2017),  “Ms. Sanders said mildly that Mr. Scaramucci was simply expressing strong feelings, and that his statement made clear that ‘he’s a passionate guy and sometimes he lets that passion get the better of him.’ ” Whereas Ms. Sanders acknowledged that Mr. Scaramucci behaved badly (his passion got the better of him), her meta-message is that it was no big deal, as implied by the words “mildly” and “simply” in the quote above.

The passion plea is by no means limited to the world of politics. Executives who are seen as emotionally rough around the edges by their co-workers often defend their behavior with statements like, “I’m just being passionate,” or “I am not afraid to tell it like it is,” or, “My problem is that I care too much.”

The passion plea distorts reality by glossing over the distinction between what is said and how it is said. Executives who deliver negative feedback in a harsh tone are not just being passionate. Even when the content of the negative feedback is factual, harsh tones convey additional messages – notably a lack of dignity and respect. Almost always, there are ways to send the same strong messages or deliver the same powerful feedback in ways that do not convey a lack of dignity and respect. For instance, Mr. Scaramucci could have said something like, “Let me be as clear as possible: I have strong disagreements with Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus.” It may have been less newsworthy, but it could have gotten the same message across. Arguably, Mr. Scaramucci’s 11-day tenure as White House director of communications would have been longer had he not been so “passionate” and instead used more diplomatic language.

Similarly, executives that I coach rarely disagree when it is made evident that they could have sent the same strong negative feedback in ways that would have been easier for their co-workers to digest. Indeed, this is the essence of constructive criticism, which typically seeks to change the behavior of the person on the receiving end. Rarely are managers accused of coming on “too strong” if they deliver negative feedback in the right ways. For example, instead of saying something about people’s traits or characters (e.g., “You aren’t reliable”) it would be far better to provide feedback with reference to specific behavior (e.g., “You do not turn in your work on time”). People usually are more willing and able to respond to negative feedback about what they do rather than who they are. Adding a problem-solving approach is helpful as well, such as, “Some weeks you can be counted on to do a good job whereas other weeks not nearly as much. Why do you think that is happening, and what can we do together to ensure greater consistency in your performance?” Moreover, the feedback has to be imparted in a reasonable tone of voice, and in a context in which people on the receiving end are willing and able to take it in. For instance, one of my rules in discussing with students why they didn’t do well on an assignment is that we not talk immediately after they received the unwanted news. It is far better to have a cooling-off period in which defensiveness goes down and open-mindedness goes up.

If our goal is to alienate people or draw negative attention to ourselves then we should be strong and hard-driving, even passionate, in what we say as well as crude and inappropriate in how we say it. However, if we want to be a force for meaningful change or a positive role model, it is well within our grasp to be just as strong and hard-driving in what we say while being respectful and dignified in how we say it.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.