Many entrepreneurs have high standards when it comes to performance. You might even call them perfectionists. That means they'll often have a lot of feedback and input anytime someone asks their opinion on something. In fact, for many, it's what they live for--problem solving. Some even create problems to solve, but that is for another column.

But sometimes being too free with your feedback comes at a steep price. In truth, there are times when keeping your mouth shut as a manager is your best decision. That's where the 80 percent rule comes into play.

Let's say you have an employee come up to you and ask you for some feedback on a project they are running. Right off the bat, you immediately see some areas that could be better run. But the danger in opening your mouth and offering feedback and direction is that you will cause your employee to lose their sense of ownership over the project. The moment you decide to give significant feedback, you've now taken over ownership of that project. It becomes your work, not theirs.

Now, if a project is mission-critical to the survival of the firm, all bets are off. But for anything less sensitive than that, if a project is 80 percent on target, then you should keep your mouth shut. Or rather, you tell your employee something like, "Great job--now jump on it and execute on the rest of it."

Sure, you could have helped that employee get to the point where it met 100 percent of your expectations. But then you'd lose their heart and soul in the process. You'd rather have a employee who is 100 percent committed to a project that is only 80 percent of the way there than have someone only 80 percent committed to something you thought was 100 percent on target. See the distinction?

Another strategy to use when a subordinate asks for feedback is to ask him or her, "Is that the best you can do?" Many times, this question alone is enough to incent really driven employees to say they will take another crack at making it better. The employee is still doing all the work, you've only asked a question, which means they'll remain engaged and retain their sense of ownership.

But if an employee says yes, that was their best effort, and it was still 80 percent good enough, then you say "Great job" and run with it. This is particularly true for a project that will not damage the business if it isn't perfect.

There is a story about a leader that had an employee that was working on a project and he came to discuss it after he had sent it to the leader. The leader asked if this was the best he could do. The employee admitted he could probably do better and asked if he could go work on it a bit more. He came back a week later. Again, the question--"is this the best you can do". He admitted there were a few areas he could improve and he went to make those changes. A third time he came back and the question came. This time he was certain--this was the best work he could do. At that point, the leader said, "Then I'll read it now". While the story feels a little manipulative, the employee continued to own the project and did the best work he was capable of without the leader diving into help and take ownership.

This same rule also applies to parenting, for what it's worth. If your kid comes home form school with a project or a paper and asks you for feedback, use the 80% rule to determine how you respond.

Again, you want your kid to own their work and to feel a sense of accomplishment in doing it themselves without mom or dad's help. It's more valuable this way. Now, if your kid is about to fail the semester, maybe the higher stakes make your decision a little stickier.

But it will always be more valuable for your child--and your employees--to own their work. That is the true foundation for an engaged workforce.

Published on: Feb 10, 2015
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