Feedback Under Pressure: A Great Example of how it is Not Done

The whole Bosasa flame was fanned further last week when News24 posted a video, and matching article, of Gavin Watson CEO of Bosasa. During the video he was energetically deriding his employees for poor performance in what was almost the loss of an R800m tender. This took place during an off-site “imbizo” held in March 2016.

Now I know that the Bosasa story has become a major talking point in our lives, and justly so, but for a moment I would like to look past the scandal itself and focus on the video and lessons that can be learned around providing tough feedback to employees. Admittedly the loss of R800m is likely to get most CEO’s a little hot under the collar.

These are the lessons I believe we can learn from this video.

1. Keep negative feedback private

Unless poor performance has been briefed in private it should never become public. There are two very good reasons for this. Firstly, to save your own reputation. Leaders who discuss such situations where they do not have all the facts can come across as playing favourites or being reactionary. And yes, the employee in question may also have relevant information. Secondly, besides saving your own bacon, it is respectful to first discuss this with the employee and provide them with an opportunity and support to improve their performance.

2. Do not name and shame publicly

Only once feedback has been debriefed in private can lessons learned be shared. Even then it should only be done with the employee’s knowledge and in a way that does not place that employee in a poor light. Creativity and innovation in business cannot thrive without employees being permitted to take risks. Risks are, well, risky and therefore clever companies find positive ways of debriefing learning points to reduce further risk. Never in the entire process is it acceptable to point out particular individuals and interrogate them on their poor performance in public.
There are two inherent risks for leaders who behave in this manner. The first is that they are seen as abdicating responsibility. The moment there is a culture of blame in an organization, there is also a matching lack of ownership and this will spread across all levels of the business. The second risk is that you are seen as a bully, and bullying is not seen as a strength in leadership. Not even the most glaring crisis in business could justify bullying. It also does little to inspire trust and loyalty in employees, suppliers or clients.

3. Do not play favourites

When providing someone with feedback, it is not appropriate to create comparisons or play favourites. The sentence “Why can’t you be more like [fill in the name]?” does not work on children and will not work on adults. By comparing employees with each other you rob both employees of their unique talents. Speak to the employee’s performance and find out what the employee can do to improve and how you can assist in the process. Set measureable expectations then move on.

4. Individual versus team feedback

I often find that in companies there is the need to place blame for poor performance with one individual or one team. That seems ironic when organizations are built from separate but interdependent units that all form part of the same workflow. It is actually impossible for one unit to fail entirely unless they work 100% in isolation. Surely, if the business unit does not perform well then other units who feed work into or receive output from this unit will notice any problems. Such problems, if raised through appropriate processes, enable organizations to take corrective action.

5. Human beings not human doings

We hire employees because they add value to our organizations, that value is a product of everything they are. An employee is more than their skillset. They add value by being of a certain mindset, culture, having certain life experiences and so on. If we are happy to make money mining that potential, then we also need to be prepared to support the whole individual. One way to do this is by not dismissing employees’ emotions, to do so is to also deprive them of their humanity. Invalidating someone’s emotions, or even asking them to not exhibit them is in no way going to increase their need to perform well.

A final thought

As we only have access to a few minutes of video footage and therefore do not have the full context of what had, and was, happening this piece is not meant as a judgement or a commentary of the larger Bosasa storyline. Furthermore I think that we should acknowledge the impact of the video and that not every leader in business would have this same energetic approach, but it does provide a powerful reflection point. It does provide all individuals in leadership positions an opportunity to look in the mirror and ask how do I deal with feedback under pressure?

Have you had a similar experience in your workplace? Is this example reflective of South African leadership? Let me know via email or in the comments below. To learn more, visit or follow me on Linkedin.