Six professional ways to say ‘this sucks’

How do you tell your colleagues or subordinates their work isn’t up to par?

I just sat through an incredibly painful review of a branding document 18 months in the making. As the team made its presentation, the faces of the review board went from enthusiastic to concerned to horrified. Here’s what they said:

1. It looks like management didn’t communicate some important points to your team.

2. You may be a little too close to the project.

3. We need an outside perspective.

4. I was envisioning something more along the lines of competitor x.

5. I don’t think this will get us the results we’re looking for.

6. We’re not quite there yet.

I asked 30-year copywriting veteran Van Wallach how he would handle the situation. He replied, “Having been on the receiving end of such discussions many times in my career (I’m starting to sweat even as I write), I can sympathize with the challenge.” His suggestions include:

  • When we began this project, our expectations and goals were (thesis). This document, however, delivers (antithesis). Let’s discuss how that gap happened and figure out how to get closer to what management wanted (synthesis).
  • Find some points of agreement to calm things down , then list where the gaps are and ask for ideas on how to get back to expectations. So: “Some parts of the document work and are close to what we wanted. But others just aren’t what we were expected. We need to discuss how that happened and what we can do.

Branding expert Jeanine Moss of Turning Point Solutions has a different perspective.

“It sounds like the members of the review board, and/or the other key stakeholders, were AWOL when the brand candy was passed around. If the team didn’t collaborate with decision-makers, they should expect a frosty reception.

“By the time you present your brand strategy, messaging and so on to project leaders and evaluators, it should fit like a pair of Gucci loafers. No surprises,” Moss says.

Whatever the source of the disconnect, negative comments must walk a fine line between too heavy-handed and not stern enough, and between identifying the problem and moving to correct it.

What language do you use?

Deborah Gaines is a former law firm CMO who blogs as The Corporate Writer.

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