Last week I wrote about how it feels to receive critical feedback. This week I want to give you another example of how critical feedback can present itself and some more ideas on changing your response when this happens to you.
When my manager doesn’t see my performance the way I see it my natural reaction is to protect myself by desiring to understand WHY!
The feeling is that if we can understand the rationale of what the other person is thinking then we will somehow be better able to cope with what is going on.
My encouragement for you is going to be that when this happens to you, that your initial reaction change from “why” the person is saying this to “How could I do better?"
The goal, when someone is providing you critical feedback, is to not become defensive. If your knee-jerk reaction is “why” your defensive posture may be inhibiting you from learning. Focusing on you can improve and learn from the feedback can give you more of an open posture. In the moment, the “why” question can cause the other person to feel attacked.
If our goal in organizations is to learn, then we have to stop feeling like we are being attacked and get much better at learning from each other.
Please allow me to elaborate:
One of the tools that I find most effective in both my coaching and training practices is to use a 360 feedback tool. In my executive coaching, I prefer to use Leaderpath 360, which is a leadership-oriented interview feedback tool. When it comes to training leaders in classroom settings my preference is the EQI 2.0 360.
Both of these feedback tools provide for different professional and personal relations to give feedback to the participant I am working with. Professional clients receive feedback from direct reports, peers, and their direct supervisor.
While each of these relationships provide some interesting perspective for those receiving the feedback, the supervising manager's rating is the most impactful when it is lower than any of the other relations' ratings. This often causes the participant to become the most defensive.
I pulled an example from a sample EQI 2.0 360 report to illustrate my point. The Emotional Intelligence Competencies being measured are color-coded on the far left of the illustration. The Green icon “M” is the supervising managers feedback. The Blue icon “S” is the person’s self-reported feedback. (The Red “F” is family and the Brown “O” is other). The numerical scale at the top goes from low of 50 (70 is first number shown) to a high of 150 (130 is the high number shown.)
In each of these cases, you can see that the supervising manager's feedback is lower than the person’s self-reporting feedback. Not necessarily a message any of us likes to receive.
You can imagine that if this were your EI 360 report, opening up to one of the first summary pages and seeing that you and your manager do not see eye to eye on most of the key leadership attributes. The first and natural reaction is "why?"
A perfectly natural, yet, oddly enough, not very helpful reaction.
Defensive Reactions Inhibit Learning
I had the opportunity to lead a training using this very instrument for a client several weeks ago and had a young leader come up to me at the lunch break. He was obviously trying to make sense of the data in front of him. Similar to the graphic above, his feedback showed that in every emotional intelligence competency, he, his peers, and his direct reports rated his emotional intelligence higher than his manager rated him.
The young leader was intently focused on trying to understand why this was so.
His very natural, defensive reaction was to try and understand, to put story as to the reason why the manager saw him in this light.
“I just do not understand the reasons behind this feedback," was his opening comment to me.
“What is it that you do not understand?” I asked.
“Why would my manager rate me this low on all these competencies?” Tears started to well in his eyes.
As a coach, I knew at this point my job was to help this young leader see past the “why” of the situation. The important thing in that moment was not “why” the supervisor had done this, but what the young leader was going to focus on moving forward.
Focusing on the wrong question was not going to help this young leader move forward. In that situation, in that moment, we were not going to be able to answer those most basic of “why” questions. The supervisor was not present, and even if he/she were present, the question could very well put the supervisor in a defensive position.
If that were to happen we would then have a defensive supervisor and a defensive employee each focused on defending their position. Not a recipe for a healthy development conversation.
The Coache's Role
As someone in a leadership or coaching position, in that moment the goal must be to help the person let go of the "why" and focus on what to do next. For development to happen, we must use our coaching ability to help them see the change they need to make. This is our first step towards development.
The conversation when something like this:
Me: “I want to encourage you to let go of the question of 'why' and focus on what the report is telling you overall.”
Participant: “But if I understand why my boss sees me this way, I can do something about it."
Me: “No, that is a rabbit trail, you think is logical, but in reality is a dead end.”
Participant: Long blank stare followed by an even longer pause. “But why…?” He just couldn’t help but get one more defensive salvo in before he let his guard down.
Me: “ Why isn’t important right now. Maybe someday it will become clear to you, but what is important now is to see the bigger picture the report is showing you. What are you going to do with this feedback? Who is going to help you move forward? These questions hold the object of your focus.”
As he exhaled I could see the shift in his demeanor from agitation to calm listening.
Now The Development Conversation Can Start
This was hard for him, really hard. Ultimately, what the young leader was experiencing was some form of put-down or rejection in the moment. None of us likes to be rejected or even experience the feeling of being rejected. This feeling of a cold shoulder toward our performance is disruptive, and, might I add, quite a valuable gift.
The bonus that this young leader received from the supervisor's feedback is more valuable than any nominal raise in pay he will ever receive. Now the young leader knows there is work to be done. Until this moment in time, he thought he was doing well across most of the leadership domains being measured.
Focusing on the next move or two can help the leader who is stuck on the wrong question to be able to move forward. And it is moving forward that best describes what development is all about.
Our first and natural reaction when receiving critical feedback is to defend ourselves. Even when we don’t think we are being defensive, many times we just can’t help ourselves. It seems perfectly logical to want to understand why someone doesn’t see the world in the same way that we see it.
Move past your knee-jerk reaction of wanting to understand “why” behind the feedback and move quickly on to more productive ground of doing something about it.