One of the most difficult things any of us can experience in our organizational life is to receive critical feedback.
So often we speak as if like feedback, we value feedback, we even welcome feedback. I worked with a client a number of years ago who’s mantra was "We are a feedback-rich environment!"
But let's be honest, most of the time this desire for feedback is because we want validation that things are going really well.
Do we have the same reactions however when the feedback we receive is more critical? Is there a best way to respond when you are given feedback that your performance is not up to standard or that your behaviors are not valued by others?
I had a client call me a few weeks ago and he was audibly frustrated when I answered the phone. We really didn’t even exchange any pleasantries like, "How are you doing?" to start our conversation. He just dug right in…
“Scott, you would not believe my boss and what she just did! We have been working really hard all year to deliver on a really important project for one of our top internal customers. The project has gone well overall, the client has been very pleased and there have been zero complaints, and we are even under budget. When I sat down to review the project as part of my performance review, my boss acknowledged my hard work and then said I would be getting an average performance rating. Average! I can tell you my performance was anything but average!”
He said that he just sat there just stunned and ask himself, "How could anything on the project went any better? Average performance? What do you have to do to get a top performance recognition around here?”
He told me that he was so emotional that he couldn’t even hear anything else his boss was saying to him. All he wanted to know was WHY she felt this way. Was she paying attention at all?
Receiving Feedback that Feels Critical
I think there are times in our corporate lives when we receive critical feedback that is not intended to be harmful but it sure feels like it is to us.
I said to the young man on the phone, “It sounds to me like what your boss is saying is that your performance is like that of most people in the organization and that means that it is good enough that they want you to stick around for the near future.”
That went over like a ton of bricks.
“Scott, you have no idea how hard I worked, how many hours, what we did to make that project happen on time and under budget.”
“I am sure I don’t understand the details, but I am wondering if you are hearing the message your boss is trying to send. She is saying well done, but since you are expecting to hear 'excellent,' and you are not, what you are hearing is 'bad.'”
Then I said, “Are you sure her message to you is BAD?”
I don’t think he heard my question because he was still so fired up that he said to me, “All I want to know is WHY she feels this way."
“That may be the wrong question,” I said, “I think what you want to really know is HOW you could do better next time to get the rating you are expecting."
When we get feedback that feels critical in nature, our natural urge is to defend ourselves. We can’t help it, it is part of our hard-wiring. The goal as you work to develop yourself as a leader is to overcome these natural defense mechanisms and develop new response mechanisms so that you can learn and grow.
Have you ever experienced this? I mean, worked really hard on something, poured your life into it, thought you were doing really well, and then suddenly you are confronted with the feeling that what you are doing isn’t really good enough?
If you have been in an organization long enough you no doubt have experience this type of misaligned expectation or critical feedback. The feedback may not be critical in the sense that it is mean or demeaning, just that what you are doing or working on has some room for improvement.
Here is what I want to encourage you to do when you feel like you are receiving Critical Feedback.
- Step back and try and not take the criticism personally.
- Take a deep breath and let go of the negative, defensive feeling.
- Change your WHY to HOW. Focus on what your improvement needs to be rather than have your boss defend their position.
In the end, your supervisor feels how they feel, and there is probably little you can do in the moment to change his/her mind. The question is less about WHY they feel the way they do and more about WHAT you need to do differently and HOW you can make changes for the future.
Next week I will continue on the topic of critical feedback, and offer more ideas on how to respond in this kind of situation. Have you experienced a situation like this before? Let me know in the comments what kind of responses you think are most helpful to critical feedback.