“You took it, and broke a major rule of engagement. Then you broke another one with that circus stunt fly-by. Top Gun rules of engagement exist for your safety and for that of your crew. They are not flexible, nor am I. Obey them or you’re history. Is that clear?”
Commander Mike “Viper” Metcalf
We’ve spent the last two articles looking at the practiced art of delivering negative feedback…or better stated, “The Butt Chewing.” In this last article, lets take a look at Viper’s style in delivering a bit of negative feedback. It is not as theatrical as the mouth frothing delivery of Stinger but in my mind it is perhaps the best example of how to give negative counseling.
Watch the movie and really look at this scene. Viper approaches this session with credibility. Most leaders and managers have authority over someone that can be wielded for influence. While not all managers have the credibility of technical expertise, this is often the difference between a good manager and a truly transformational leader. Remember what Jester said, “There is no better fighter pilot in the United States Navy.” Viper is the best…he has been there and done that. Heck, he doesn’t just have the t-shirt, his face is on the front of the t-shirt. When he speaks it isn’t simply with the title of Commander of Top Gun, it is with the authority springing from the fact that he is the master of the art. He was the winner of the first Top Gun trophy and a man who flew combat in Vietnam.
Now look at his body language. Arms crossed, shaking his head with disappointment and disbelief. We often say if you want to be heard all you have to do is just whisper. Viper approaches Maverick and Goose as if he is a badly disappointed father whose expectations have simply not been met.
A solid “butt-chewing” can be delivered in a variety of styles but there are some essential elements that don’t change:
- The authority of the counselor, to give the administrative rebuke.
- This authority can and should come from a position of rank, title and administrative power.
- BUT it is always more effective if the authority is backed up with credibility and technical expertise. The boss has to know what he is talking about.
- The leader’s style must be authentic. Use your own style and don’t make threats you won’t carry out. Never draw a red line in the sand without being prepared to act on the person who crosses the line.
- A clear explanation of the errant behavior.
- The reason the errant behavior is wrong. That is to state clearly what standard of behavior, rule or defined company policy was broken.
- The immediate consequences of this behavior and the consequences of recurrent patterns of similar behavior.
Now lets look at each sentence in this classic “butt-chewing” session
- You took it, and broke a major rule of engagement. This is a clean kill. You broke the rules, period….full stop. Violation of standards!
- Then you broke another one with that circus stunt fly-by. Viper again points to a clear violation. But look at his wisdom in saying circus stunt fly by. He is telling Maverick, “Son you may think this was cool, but it was a clown move.” In Viper’s judgment and that of the leaders of Top Gun this was an act of airmanship that makes Maverick look foolish and almost comical. The disappointment and derision just drips off Viper’s tongue. When a leader who commands this kind of respect and admiration, ridicules Maverick, it begins the turning point in Maverick’s behavior.
- Top Gun rules of engagement exist for your safety and for that of your crew. In one concise sentence Viper firmly and quietly refers to the standards expected of his aircrews, and why those standards exist…SAFETY.
- They are not flexible, nor am I. Obey them or you’re history. Is that clear?” Again, we need to observe Viper’s language, tone of voice and facial expressions. While this is simply a movie, it is a great bit of acting. He is firm, unequivocal, and quite convincing. And yet he never even raises his voice. “Is that clear?” He leaves Maverick with only one response…yes sir.
Of course, in the Top Gun drama we see Viper’s corrective counseling as the beginning turning point in changing Maverick’s behavior, and his flight discipline. We can all learn from Viper’s style that makes it a textbook example of how to deliver a bit of negative feedback.
All leaders, whether military pilots or civilian managers, are faced with many decisions when leading a group. And unfortunately leading a team is not always sunshine and rainbows. There will inevitably be times when the leader must take action to reverse poor performance.
Whatever style one chooses to use, the best template for that “butt-chewing session must have certain attributes.
- It must come from personal credibility, experience and authenticity.
- It must be aligned with the regulations and standards of the organization.
- It must point out very clearly how the individual failed to meet the standard of behavior.
- It must point to the consequences of the errant behavior.
There you have it as dramatically provided by the two highest-ranking pilots on the Top Gun set. You can choose the mouth frothing, cigar chomping style of a Stinger. Or you can choose the disappointed parenting style of Viper. One cuts with a meat axe, the other with a sharpened scalpel.
I have been on both the giving and receiving end of both styles. And in truth, I prefer to go “under the knife” any day.