What Simon Cowell and Stephen Tyler Can Teach Us about Feedback

By Jim Whitt

In an article entitled Why I Miss That Old Meanie Simon Cowell, The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon had this to say about American Idol’s new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler: “The two of them are so solemnly supportive, it’s like watching a televised AA meeting.”

Like Deacon, I thought Simon’s bombastic barbs added flavor to the show but I’ve grown to appreciate Jennifer and just flat get a kick out of Steven’s whacky way with words. His wit is sharp but rarely cuts. He comes up with mind-bending critiques of the contestants and isn’t afraid to take on his fellow judges. He once told Randy Jackson, “If I agreed with you we’d both be wrong.” When Jennifer and Randy delivered an unfavorable assessment of a contestant’s performance Tyler advised the contestant not to listen to them.

A friend of mine told me if he could trade a day in life with anyone else it would be Steven Tyler. I told him if he did it might be a day in rehab. Deaton’s AA comment, while intended to be humorous, has some unintended merit – Tyler has been in rehab eight times. That means he’s been the recipient of a lot of feedback. My guess is this consciously or subconsciously influences his interaction with the contestants and other judges. When I listen to him give feedback to contestants I hear the language of someone who has spent a great deal of time in counseling. He has the ability to judge without being judgmental.  He can be honest and supportive.

These are attributes all of us should strive to emulate, particularly those who are in leadership positions. Simon Cowell’s tongue lashings and prima donna personality make for good TV but not good behavior modeling for managers. It’s not that his opinion of a contestant’s performance might be inaccurate but the delivery of that opinion was often unnecessarily caustic. I’ve seen this behavior way too often in the workplace. Simonizing a subordinate, or anyone else for that matter, does not bring out the best in people. It tends to do the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong. I tell managers they should never tolerate behavior that doesn’t meet expectations. Managers are responsible to give feedback and hold people accountable. But the delivery is as critical as the feedback. You can be brutally honest without being brutal. The objective is not to shoot down the plane but to help the pilot stay on course.

“I don’t ever want to be a bad example again,” says Tyler. I suspect he’ll laugh if he finds out a management consultant is writing about him being a good example. He’s not malicious but he is flamboyant. No one will ever accuse Steven Tyler of being plain vanilla – his colorful turn of a phrase sometimes results in a censored word or two. As he puts it, “I’m not into flambéing but I didn’t fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian.”

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