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‘Solid’ Praise Isn’t Good Enough

‘Solid’ tends to be a neutral to slightly positive word. The times I’ve found it to be an effusive praise word, it’s been accompanied by a bunch of non-verbals: excited eyes, voice inflection, physical histrionics. You can hear someone saying it, “Dude, that 3-pointer Steph dropped was SOLID as hell, man!” You know, or something similar, maybe more likely about a LeBron block?

As a praise word around the office, though, I’ve found the use of the word ‘solid’ to be rather confusing and generally flat and non-committal. I have a specific example of a performance review that I once received, in which the primary contribution that my team and I had made was described as ‘solid’. Didn’t sit well.

Performance Reviews

Let me give you a quick primer on my love-hate relationship with performance reviews.

I love them because

  1. they generally serve the purpose of making sure people get SOME feedback in a 6 or 12 month period,
  2. they give some visibility to a small number of critical stakeholders on the kind of feedback being given, and
  3. they can serve a purpose of helping companies make fair and equitable decisions about distribution of scarce resources, such as promotions, pay increases, and stock.

I hate them becauseperformance-review-recency-bias

  1. their mere existence often serves as an implicit excuse not to give immediate feedback, one of our core HIP tenets,
  2. they are generally an enormous burden to write and administer, and
  3. they are loaded with recency bias – the feedback offered is usually focused on what happened most recently rather than what happened over the entirety of the review period.

I almost never push back on what is written in my performance reviews. Having received many, many reviews now, I know that my manager will write a good review, and I know that I will take some of the advice and try to apply it, and I will ignore some of the advice. As long as the arc of the review seems right, I tend not to get wrapped around the details. I tend not to ask cross-examination questions such as “on this area for development, can you give me some examples?” but rather, “that’s interesting and thanks for that. Let me make sure I understand…“ and then restate to make sure I fully understand the feedback. I truly recognize the performance review as a limited, moment-in-time, extremely flawed, small gift and generally just say “Thank you very much for this thoughtful review,” and exit the room with a smile and some self-reflection.

I once received a performance review that was a little bit confusing and marks the one and only time in my career that I asked for a sentence to be changed in one of my performance reviews.

The summary rating was “Exceeds Expectations”. For context, the possible summary ratings were:

  • “Misses Expectations”,
  • “Meets Expectations”,
  • “Exceeds Expectations” or
  • “Greatly Exceed Expectations”

so the Exceeds Expectations rating is something to be excited about.

…but the very first bullet in the ‘Strengths’ section was a characterization of the business I was running. It read: “Solid business performance – ab% Q/Q, yyy% Y/Y, and 1xx% of Target.”

I didn’t like this one bit because I thought it was non-committal, non-specific, and it felt like it dramatically undersold the heroics my team and I had been undertaking for months and months. As the performance review unfolded, all I could think about was that word. Solid. Solid.

Getting mixed signals

For context, my perspective was that the growth we were driving was somewhat miraculous. Our products were extremely challenged relative to our competitors’ products and our customers’ needs, and we had a massive, jaw-dropping customer churn problem as a result. Despite the headwinds related to the core ROI and ROE challenges of our product suite, our team was driving enormous growth. The variables I used above represent correct orders of magnitude, and the business was in the 100s of millions of dollars. We were doing this with the highest revenue per head in the company. In absolute terms, this is pretty good by almost any standard.

But, we wanted more. The way I personally talked about our performance was that we were ‘proud, but not satisfied.’ I wanted us to keep pushing, but I also thought it was important to recognize the extraordinary performance we’d had thus far.

My boss’s boss often gave off light-weight signals of dissatisfaction with the business, but coupled those with more frequent, clearer statements of endorsement. He had little more than a cursory understanding of the details and challenges of the business, and I found his mixed signals very confusing.

My boss, on the other hand, seemed to genuinely appreciate the energy and effort my team had been deploying to achieve the ‘proud but not satisfied’ results we were getting, and he also seemed to genuinely understand that the results we were getting were a near-miracle. But no doubt, he was also picking up on these mixed signals from his boss.

My boss was very sensitive to the dynamics happening all around him, and my hunch was that though he personally felt like the results were very strong, that he had a hard time fully endorsing them because of the mixed signals coming from his boss. He was a conflict-avoider through-and-through, described often as “go along to get along,” and so there it was in black and white, the ultimate mixed signal:

“Solid business performance – ab% Q/Q, yyy% Y/Y, and 1xx% of Target.”

As I mentioned above, I didn’t like the phrase. It didn’t help me understand whether my boss was happy with my team’s performance and what aspect of our performance was most important. I wanted more specific feedback, and if he was as happy with the results as I was, I wanted the record to reflect how my team’s heroics had manifested in the business’ performance. I asked for it to be changed to put on the record that the performance was exceptional. My boss – easily one of the highest integrity guys I’ve ever worked with – obliged and made the change. Worth noting that through that process, he neither disabused me of the notion that he was trying to walk a tightrope, nor fully owned it. Go along to get along!

Be more specific!

Solid is not a great word to use to describe performance, though it’s used often. In the context of praise, it is so non-specific to me that I’m not even sure if it’s praise or criticism! It tries to be both, as in the example I laid out above. When characterizing someone’s work, be aware that it might be not clear whether you mean ‘solid’ like “wow, you really did me a solid!” Or ‘solid’ like steady, acceptable, reliable.

Radically Candid praise is specific in order to be useful to the feedback receiver and anyone else who might hear or read the praise. It lets people know what to do more of to have continued or greater impact and to have great success. When praising people in your organization, try to find more precise words than “solid”, and make sure you mean what you say.]]>

Russ Laraway

Russ is the vice president of people at Qualtrics. Prior to joining Qualtrics he held various roles at Google, Twitter, and was a co-founder and COO of Candor, Inc. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School.