The Honeys and Vinegars of Leadership

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Are you familiar with Benjamin Franklin's famous expression, "... a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar?" Most likely at this point in our conversation you are wondering what in the world this phrase has to do with leadership. If you give me just a few minutes of your time, I would like to share my thoughts on Mr. Franklin's position. 

In his landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey introduced us to the concept of the emotional bank account. Mr. Covey believes human beings make deposits into others' accounts through "praise, positive attention, sincere apologies, or acts of service." Let's consider these actions to be an example of "honey" behavior. 

In our Air Force family, we provide "honey" in many ways to include: recognizing personnel through formal awards programs, giving a "pat on the back" for a job well done, awarding day passes for superior Career Development Course performance, voluntarily covering the duties for an Airman when it means the most to them ... to name just a few. On the other hand, Mr. Covey describes withdrawals as "criticism, sarcasm, ignoring, or failing to keep promises," all of which would definitely leave a "bitter taste" in the recipient's mouth. 

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines vinegar first as a sour liquid used as a condiment or preservative and second as ill humor. With that in mind, take a couple of seconds and try to recall the last time you had a mouthful of "sour" in your mouth. Okay, now try to recall the last time you saw a fellow Airman douse someone with a mouthful of "vinegar." I think we would all agree both occurrences are unpleasant, however the distasteful liquid is a very short-term experience, while the damage resulting from serving up vinegar tends to be long term in nature. 

Additionally, these ugly behavioral displays are often almost as painful for the observers as for the victim. Early in my career the vinegary actions of a senior non-commissioned officer towards me resulted in a complete loss of trust, so much so, from that day forward I consciously sought assignments to bases where she was NOT assigned. 

What did she do? Briefly ... upon the advisement of my unit's Chief, I brought up a new item for discussion at the wing's Jr enlisted council meeting. At the meeting an upset chief master sergeant viciously attacked my character and the master sergeant left me "hanging out to dry" despite holding the position as the SNCO advisor for the council. Worse yet, I overheard the highly respected master sergeant tell one of her peers that she had stepped in on my behalf. Even though she knew it was her duty, she chose to ignore it by remaining silent. In the end, the Chief apologized to me (thanks to my Chief's intercession), the suggested change was approved by the medical group (much to the delight of the staff sergeants) and everyone knew the master sergeant had let the entire council down. How quick do you think our members would be to risk participating in a like event? The silence after his five-minute tirade was deafening. 

Does this mean "honey" is the answer to all leadership issues? Yes ... no ... maybe, if we expand on the definition a tad. Lauding an Airman for superior performance in front of their peers or family is easily categorized as a spoon full of honey. When a leader takes responsibility for his or her team's not meeting an assigned objective that too, is a simple call ... honey. Focusing on a ratee's positive accomplishments, while downplaying weaknesses, strengthens the Airman so he or she can build up to a performance level that really earns an overall rating of "5." Honey... right? 

Wrong! Who are we to decide an Airman is not mature or tough enough to handle the "honey" of constructive criticism? Is it better for Airmen to walk out of their feedbacks with skewed perceptions of accomplishments and abilities? In that light, average performers are thought to be inspired to strive towards outstanding performance when their raters focus on their strengths and minimize the needed improvement areas. Really? Isn't it more likely they are being cheated out of the opportunity for personal and professional growth? Norman Vincent Peale once said, "The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism." Being nice because you do not want to risk hurting a ratee's feelings is extremely unkind in the long run. 

Let's turn the tables. At your midterm feedback your rater raved about your successes and glossed over your weaknesses. Possibly, they didn't want you to become angry with them or they didn't want to hurt your feelings--that might have caused your performance to drop. Maybe they just took the easy way out because they didn't have the courage to face up to their responsibility as a supervisor. So you leave the session with your blinders on, all puffed up like "Super Airman" with absolutely no idea how you are lacking in your rater's eyes. On the other hand, if the rater had acted upon the assumption that you want to be the best Airman you could be, the two of you could have developed a plan to help you progress professionally. This option placed the cards in your hands. Your career in your hands ... how exciting is that? 

Back to my original question ... honey or vinegar? Personally, I agree with Mr. Franklin ... now. However, until my fifth or sixth year in the Air Force I struggled with both receiving and delivering constructive criticism. Provision of an honest performance assessment to a ratee is one of the most precious gifts we can give or receive. I close with a thought from President Lincoln who said, "He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help." Honest feedback is vital to helping Airmen grow into proud wingman, leaders and warriors.