Feedback

The One Thing To Remember in Giving and Receiving Feedback

I think one of the most difficult things to do in organizational life is to receive tough feedback.

Most of us go into our jobs wanting to be seen at best as a top performer and at the very least a valuable contributor to the organization.

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So when someone sits you down to give you some feedback, how you receive this message can make a big difference as to the perception others will have of you.

Organizations spend lots of money on teaching managers and leaders how to give good feedback. Most “giving feedback” models include some type of framework that mandates at least 3 steps: (1) Provide context for the situation, (2) Give an assessment of a behavior, and (3) Declare the results of that behavior. The goal then is to enter into a conversation about what the person could do differently in that situation to get a different outcome. While there are probably some improvements to be made, the model in my estimation is directionally correct. It gets a conversation started, and is an attempt to help someone improve.

At the same time, there are some assumptions that get made inside of any feedback model that need to be addressed.

Case Study: Toni and Mia

Let’s consider a situation where Toni is Mia’s supervisor.  

Mia has been part of Toni’s team for about 8 months so Mia has had adequate time to observe how Toni is integrating her into the team. Mia has noticed that Toni is a bit more relationally distant from her than other members of the team, but she shrugs this off since Mia is still the newest team member.

Mia really loves the company and wishes she could say the same about working for Toni. She cannot pinpoint why she feels this way, but Toni seems to treat her differently from other team members. For example, Toni will often get into detailed conversations with other team members about hobbies or things going on in their personal lives, but everything with Mia seems to be about her projects at work. Flat out, Toni just spends more time with other members of the team. Maybe it is just a quantity of time thing, but the perception to Mia is that Toni just knows them better. One thing that Mia would say about herself is that she loves her work and others have even commented to her they wished they could care as deeply about their projects as Mia does.

The Feedback Process

As part of a routine organizational feedback process, Toni is tasked with gathering some feedback for each member of her team. For Mia, Toni will ask two or three team members what it is like to work with Mia. Simple, straightforward, open-ended, and as unbiased as possible on the part of Toni; just what is it like to work with Mia. Toni will then take her assessment of Mia’s performance and put it with the other feedback.

Once all of the data is collected Toni will develop one or two things that each person on her team could improve upon. The intention of the exercise is so that everyone is providing input and is able to make any behavioral course corrections if needed.

Toni’s Feedback for Mia

Toni’s challenge in preparing for her conversation with Mia became one of only focusing on two things. While she had some idea that Mia was struggling to integrate into the team she did not realize it was so evident to everyone else. Toni was grateful that the organization had a feedback model and even invested in a half-day of training to teach supervisors how to use it. She would need all that skill in her conversation with Mia.

The day came for the two to meet to discuss the feedback. Toni had decided on two talking points:

  1. Grandstanding- People on the team thought that Mia was not sensitive to other projects the team had and that hers, by far, was the most important.

  2. Constant Comparison-Toni had noticed in almost every conversation that Mia would compare how she was working on projects versus others on the team and this always came with how her way was better

Needless to say, when the two sat down the conversation did not go well. Even though Toni executed the feedback model with flawless accuracy she could tell Mia was both stunned by the feedback and hurt that people on the team actually felt this way. One of her comments to Toni was, “Who comes to work and tries to belittle others by doing these things. What is this 4th grade? Maybe folks around here are just a little too nice to each other and need to grow some thicker skin.” She finished the conversation with Toni by saying that the process needed to have a name change from Team Feedback to Shark Attack.

The one thing to remember in giving and receiving feedback

  1. Recognize who is in the Power Seat. Most would assume, because of the power gradient that exists in organizations that the manager, in this case, Toni, is in the power seat. But studies actually show that it is the receiver of the feedback who is in control. The receiver gets to decide what is heard, what is reflected upon, and what ultimately will be acted upon. You may be saying, well yes, but if Mia doesn’t change her behavior she will get fired. And yes, this might be true, Toni is merely a messenger and Mia has the power to decide what her actions will be.

As the receiver of the feedback, realize your power position. Be as open as you can to what is being said. Ask good clarifying questions so you have all the information you need to decide if you are going to make any changes or not.

What do you think Mia and Toni could have done differently to get a better outcome? I’d love to hear your comments.

Emotional Agility

I ran an interesting experiment last week with a group. I was training them on being emotionally intelligent leaders. Before I tell you about the experiment, a little context might be in order.

The organization, a group of twenty folks, has been working while undergoing massive change. By massive, I mean not only the quantity of change processes going on at once but the entire cultural core of leadership requirements as well. For example, managers are being asked to shift from a “command and control” culture, where directives are pushed down the chain of command, to one of solving issues as they present by the people closest to the event.

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This type of change has as a reorganization component. Teams are being dissolved and new teams are forming that did not exist three months ago. People are being herded into unclear roles that have no guidelines or strategies for success.

This kind of change is hard on people. As humans, we naturally seek safety and comfort. Even if things are not ideal if we feel comfortable and safe and like the way we have it, why would we ever want to change?

It is like trying to get your parents to move into assisted living and out of the house they have been in for over forty years. Even though everyone knows it is best, they just feel better in their environment. Change from the known to the unknown can be deeply challenging.

Period.

So back to my training experiment.

When the group of twenty came in for the 9:00 AM program, the first question I asked them, is the question I ask every group at the beginning of a session, “What do you need to know about me to feel safe in your learning?”

I know the more safe people feel, the more likely they are to absorb content, listen, and hence hopefully learn something that benefits them as future leaders.

I received typical questions like, “Tell us your education and work background,” and, “Tell us where you are from.” Even from time to time people want to know about my family. Once I have built psychological trust, I usually ask them what they want to learn during our time together. Even though I have an agenda, I always want to know what they need. This helps me to empathize throughout the day and link my content to their needs.

The Experimental Question

The group of twenty are all sitting in pods of five people at four different sets of rectangular tables. I then ask the experimental question to the group stating, “I just got some information from senior management that they feel this group is not sitting in a position that is conducive to learning, and they would like them to learn as much as they can from the day.”

Silence. Seriously, like for ninety seconds. Then someone said, “So, are you asking us to move around?”

I said, “I am not asking you to do anything. Is there anything you would like to do with the information you received?”

Then someone said, “You are the expert, tell us how you want us to sit.”

I said, “Thank you for the compliment but that is not my job here. You received information and I need to know if you are going to do anything with it. If not, I will just move on.”

Finally, some discussion started.

“Maybe we should change seats.”

“I think we should sit in a ‘U’ shape.”

“Then we would have to move tables.”

“I am comfortable right here where I am. I like my seat and really don’t want to move.”

This went on for about three minutes and I interjected, “You all are spending a lot of time talking but what I am observing is no one is moving to meet the expectation.”

After about six minutes, or so, the group got up, moved tables and formed a ‘U’ shape. Once they got into position, I asked if this was more conducive to learning, and they came up with some good reasons as to why it might be.

Then I asked, “So, why did it take you so long to respond to the feedback you received?”

One of the group members sat back and said, “Okay, I see what you just did here. You put us in a place we were comfortable and settled in and then presented us with an opportunity to do better and we hesitated and dragged our feet. That is exactly what a lot of very talented people are doing here at our company. We all know we have to change, but even those who say they are excited about the change are experiencing some emotion around the loss of the way things used to be. So we are just sitting and talking about it without much movement.”

Emotional Agility

As we continued to debrief the experiment, and what was happening in the organization, the discussion quickly centered around the change events they were experiencing and their individual responses to those changes. They came up with many reasons for the change: new leadership, market dynamics, product changes, and cultural inefficiencies. All relevant reasons, and from my perspective, accurate.

My mission for the day then became clear, from an emotional intelligence perspective, to help them develop actions and responses to become emotional agile.

“No matter the circumstance, I am responsible for my reaction”, became the mantra of the group.

For example, when people get angry or upset they almost always blame the person, the object, or God for being responsible for the change. This group came to the realization that when they are faced with change, it is up to them to recognize the emotion, label it, and then ask what it is really telling them.

The reality is, life situations happen. It is not debating “if” change is going to happen but “when,” and the question becomes how are you going to respond.

This is emotional agility. How you choose to respond in your life when change is thrust upon you.

This is Too funny

So, I am sitting on an airplane flying home writing this post and the flight attendant has the snack box. The choices are: Belvita Breakfast Bar, Pretzels, Plane Cookies, and Fritos. Now I always, I mean always ask for, and get, Plane Cookies and Fritos.

The flight attendant says to me, “Which one?”

And I say, “I always get the Fritos and the Plane Cookies.”

He says, “I can give you one, which one would you like?”

My knee-jerk thought is, what a jerk! What is his problem? They always have extras of this stuff. Why is he being such a stickler? I want my snack and I want it my way!”

Then I realized I was not acting with much emotional agility.

So, I reread what I just wrote about being emotionally agile and decided to apply my thoughts to my own behavior.

I sat back and thought, he just wants to make sure everyone gets a snack. This is actually a pretty noble gesture on his part. What a nice guy. If I was sitting in the back I would appreciate getting to have a snack choice like the people up front.

The teacher is always a student.

Becoming Agile with Your Emotion

When change is thrust upon us as humans, we have a tendency to look for blame outside of ourselves for how the action has landed on us.

The central thought behind emotional agility is; no matter the circumstance, you are responsible for your reaction.

According to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, "You cannot always choose what happens to you. But you can choose how you respond to what happens to you.”  

What emotion do you have to manage to be able to be open to think about something outside of yourself?

Can you catch yourself today having some change thrust upon you, and rather than justify with blame, seek contribution on how you can be responsible for your actions?

2 Additional Tips on How to Have a Productive Feedback Conversation

Last week we talked about a 1 Question Quiz on Productive Feedback. If you missed it, click HERE, but in summary, I asked you to consider the following three items in making your feedback conversation more productive.

  1. Become Biased for Action

  2. Consider the Relationship

  3. Appreciate what is Possible

What order do you think they should be in? I suggested Considering the Relationship as the first vital component to productive feedback. This week I want to break down the two additional tips.

Appreciate What is Possible

A conversation that includes possibility assumes a relationship. If someone is going to enter into considering a change by exploring what might be, they first have to be able to trust that you have their best interest in mind. This is a really important point. It is not a good idea to have an appreciative conversation with someone if they do not trust you. You may trust them implicitly, but if the feeling is not mutual then you do not have a relationship, so do not proceed.

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Possibility starts with curiosity. Perhaps asking something like, “What could they mean when they say you are direct?” or “How could you approach your work so others feel valued?” would spur your team member toward thinking about what is possible.

Possibility is all about giving the person who receives the feedback hope for the future. As the receiver of feedback, I need your optimism that this criticism is temporary and if I work on it I can overcome the challenge. It is very likely that the person receiving the feedback has been very successful using this behavior in the past. If you consider the story above, it is likely this person has been rewarded for her technical expertise and that working in teams might be very new for her. Showing her a way out of her dilemma is what possibility conversations are all about.

In the end, it is really critical for the person receiving the feedback to own what is possible. You, as the giver of feedback, are helping them get to the place where they can see what is possible and that they can own it. As the giver of feedback, you cannot become the owner of the possible. You have to possess a keen awareness if what the person comes up with as possible will close any gap that exists, but the person receiving the feedback is always the owner and in charge of the possibility dream.

Become Biased For Action

Ahh. We are finally here. Helping the person put the plan together that closes the gap between how they have been showing up and how they desire to show up.

First, it is really critical to stop and ask yourself how the relationship is going and if the person is owning the possibility for change. If not, you are not ready for creating action. Go back and find the issue in the first two steps and correct this before moving forward. According to James Flaherty, too many conversations break down here because of power gradients. People are more committed to change if they trust the supervisor and if they are included in what the change might look like.

This next step is where you will be helping the person take possible into reality. This step is important so you do not stop at dreaming about what might be. You have to help them put a plan into place around what will be.

Commitment to action is what both parties are ultimately after. It is key to keep the plan simple and in the form of a few measurable items. These simple things have to be in the form of behaviors that are observable and not values or character traits. For example, in the story above, the person receiving feedback could ask more questions about why people on the team do things a certain way and then validate that the idea is a good one. This is both behavioral and actionable. Saying that the person needs to become more humble in working with teammates, while potentially true, is not helpful as humility is a character trait and needs to have behavioral actions put with it so that the person can act upon the plan.

Reflection

So, as I had this conversation with my old friend about productive feedback conversations (Read the conversation here) the phone grew silent on the other end.

“You still there?” I asked.

“Yes, I am just reflecting on these three elements and where I am getting this all wrong.”

"You are giving yourself some feedback,” I said.

“Maybe so”, was his reply. “I am thinking I need to go back to the beginning and consider where the relationships with everyone on my team are really at. Do they trust me enough for me to even provide them with feedback? It doesn’t matter that the organization declares me the supervisor, I am only going to get necessary change if they buy into me.”

Spoken like a true leader.

Out of the three tips to consider, where do you see your greatest potential for growth?

Would you be willing to give ME some feedback? If so, I have a few questions I would like to ask you.

 
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Take This 1 Question Quiz on How to Have a Productive Feedback Conversation

An old colleague called me the other day. He was having some trouble getting someone on his team to accept some feedback he was giving.

“I keep telling her that she needs to stop and build relationships with folks on the team. She is just so direct and to the point that no one wants to work with her. She is technically the most skilled person on the team but she doesn’t realize that it is ok if others do things differently. It is at the point that no one wants to work with her on anything. One person even told me,’She needs to approach her work with an attitude that everyone is doing their best and that we all have good intention. Sure she is really smart, but what good is that if no one wants to be around her.’”

My friend then said to me, “I even did the old feedback sandwich technique, where I give her a positive comment, and then give her the criticism, and followed this by what a good person she is.”

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Ever been in a space like this? Where you are trying to give someone feedback but it is like you are talking to a wall. Or maybe the person seems open and friendly but you cannot move the conversation past your relationship.  

Or...

Maybe you had someone try some technique on you like the CrapFeedback Sandwich where they build you up to tear you down and then try and save the day with some meaningless positivism that is more therapeutic for them than it is for you?

“Ok, just stop,” I told my friend. “Let’s talk about productive feedback and how really to have a productive conversation.”

Take This 1 Question Quiz on Productive Feedback

Here are three things to consider to make your feedback conversation more productive.

  1. Become Biased for Action

  2. Consider the Relationship

  3. Appreciate what is Possible

Now put them in the proper order for effective feedback.

Did you find that you had an “aha” moment as you tried to figure out the order? Reflect on your thoughts for a moment.

Perhaps you find yourself saying that feedback is all about being Biased for Action. After all, the reason you are giving the person feedback is so that they can have the information they need to make the changes that others see are needed. You are not having a feedback conversation for your own health or to just hear yourself talk (although it does seem that way sometimes to some people).

According to James Flaherty who writes on effective coaching conversations these three conversations all need to happen if someone is going to change a behavior, but the order they happen in is critical. For example, if you do not have a firm enough foundational relationship, getting a person to act on feedback is futile. You could pay them all the compliments you can think of but when the criticism comes, they go immediately into a protective defensive posture.

From the list of three things to consider for productive feedback, let’s consider the most important of these three which is the relationship.

Consider the Relationship

In order for any feedback to resonate with the receiver, the relationship with the provider of the feedback is critical. Good interpersonal relationships have some core elements to them which are often taken for granted.

  • First, they are mutual. This means that both parties derive satisfaction from being together. This relationship cannot be forced. Even if we do not get to choose who we have on our team, or the boss we work for, we have to freely decide of our own will that we are going to be in the relationship.

  • Second, the reason the relationship exists is due to some foundational core commitments. The commitments we make to each other are critical because all relationships are going to have ambiguity and misunderstanding and without solid core commitments it is hard to maintain a relationship.

  • Third, the relationship must contain trust and compassion. For feedback to be absorbed by the receiver trust must be present. For trust to flourish compassion must be present. Having compassion means you are with me in my suffering. That you understand me and will not abandon me when I am down.

Next week we’ll dissect the remaining two factors that play a big role in productive feedback: Becoming Biased for Action and Appreciating what’s Possible. But until then, how do you think Considering the Relationship affects productive feedback? I’d love to hear your comments below.

4 Additional Considerations for Giving and Receiving Tough Feedback

Last week we talked about a case study between Toni and Mia. Toni had some tough feedback for Mia and unfortunately, their conversation did not go well. Click here if you missed the blog post, but in summary, the one thing to remember in giving and receiving feedback is recognizing who is in the power seat during the conversation.

To add to our dialogue, here are 4 Additional Considerations for Giving and Receiving Tough Feedback.

  1. Expect Defensiveness - People are people and when we feel attacked one of our natural responses is to defend ourselves. We do this by justifying our actions, discounting the process, and questioning the procedures.

    • If you find yourself on either side of the feedback process. Recognize when you are being defensive and say, “I am feeling a bit defensive right now and that is not how I want to be perceived. Can we reconvene tomorrow so I am more open to what you are saying?”

  2. The Speaking Reveals the Speaker - Those providing feedback are in the hot seat. Even if you are just playing the role of the reporter who is bringing objective facts to the conversation, you are choosing the subset of facts you think matter most.

    • When you are receiving feedback, assume positive intent from the giver. Assume they have information that is going to be helpful for you to perform better.

  3. The Rule of 3 Conversations - Anytime we are delivering feedback there are 3 conversations happening. First, the conversation between the speaker and the listener; second, the conversation the listener is having with herself, and third, the conversation the speaker is having with herself. The job of the speaker is to understand the conversation that the listener is having with herself.

    • As the listener, your job is to comprehend what is being said. The quieter you can make the conversation within yourself will enable you to appreciate and receive what is being communicated.

  4. It’s All About The Relationship - Never, ever underestimate the power of relationship.  As the giver of feedback, the more mutually satisfying the relationship, the better your feedback will land. This is not just about having common interests but has to do with the level of shared commitments you make to each other. The only way to do this is to spend both quality and quantity of time together. The stronger the mutual commitments that people have the better the relationships. I have noticed in my coaching work that many people do not have anyone to call and share struggles with when they feel like they are in emotional confusion. There is no substitute for genuine time and compassion to strengthen relationships.

    • As the receiver of feedback, you have to take the relationship where it is at the moment, so here are some tips for you to absorb the feedback:

      • Stay present and attentive in the conversation. Resist the temptation to explain “why” you did something.

      • Find commonality in what is being said. It is critical to find something in the feedback you can own and act on.

      • Don’t shoot the messenger. Refrain from becoming judgmental of the person who is giving you feedback. Focus on the content of the message and not who is saying it.

Reflect on the Case

Go back over the case study from last week (read here) and see where you think Mia and Toni could have gotten a better outcome by applying these 5 total suggestions (from this week and last week’s blog) to their feedback conversation.

Better yet, why not study these 5 items before you go into your next feedback session.

I would love to hear from you as to how these 5 items resonate with you. Drop me an email at scott@drscottlivingston.com and I would be happy to connect.

Would you be willing to give ME some feedback? If so, I have a few questions I would like to ask you.

 
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Don’t Make The Same Mistake I Did

During a recent 360 feedback event, where leaders receive feedback from their supervisor, peers, and direct reports, one of the leaders came up to me afterward. She said, “Scott, my feedback is telling me I need to have better interpersonal relationships, especially with my peers. Can you give me some advice on how I can improve in this area?"

My knee-jerk reaction was to provide advice from my training and experience so I began rattling off my instructions. I gave a step-by-step plan to this young leader what she needed to do to have mutually satisfying relationships. After all, in my training and coaching practice, I have developed a near effortless perspective in this area. As an executive coach with a doctoral dissertation in executive coaching, I assumed I knew what the problem was.

Thankfully, I noticed the blank stare on this young leader’s face. She was completely overwhelmed.

I FELL INTO THE TRAP OF THE LEADERSHIP EXPERT

I stopped mid-sentence, shifted my thinking, and asked, ”When it comes to interpersonal relationships, what doesn’t seem right to you?” The young leader went on for about 3-minutes describing her thoughts and analysis. She explained how she felt spending time on “chit-chat” was not productive in the midst of her busy day. For example, when she had a meeting she skipped pleasantries and got right down to business. She wondered aloud if this was a possible disconnect with her peers.

Asking this woman a simple question allowed her emotional space to verbalize ways she needed to improve her interpersonal relationships. I had forgotten that most young leaders are just beginning their journey. They are still getting used to the language of leadership. They are receiving feedback, many of them for the first time. Where I am in my practice and where they are as young leaders are two entirely different places.

THOSE I LEAD ARE AT DIFFERENT STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT

Scientists claim that it takes at least 10,000 hours of study, experimentation, and practice paired with coaching and advice from individuals in that field before you become an expert in an area.

10,000 hours equals 6 years spent on the subject full-time, 8 hours a day, 200 days per year. Few of us have dedicated this kind of time to a field, so for most of us, it takes 10 to 12 years to develop our expertise.

Have you fallen into the same trap I did? Are you holding young leaders to a high standard of evaluation?

Edgar Schein, in his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, gives leaders sage advice when leadership conversations go wrong.

  1. Do less telling.

  2. Learn to do more asking.

  3. Do a better job of listening.

Here are three suggestions to practically implement Schein’s advice:

  1. Do less telling by learning to let go of your need to be heard as an expert. What is driving your need to be right or heard? Replace your directive style with an inquiry.

  2. Learn to do more asking by making your questions open-ended. “What doesn’t seem right to you” or “Tell me more about what you are saying."

  3. Do a better job of listening by practicing empathy. Give them your full, undivided attention while keeping in mind where they are in their development.

Think of a relationship you have struggled with at work. The next time you are in conversation with this person, give up your expert position and ask some open-ended questions instead. Focus on improving the strained relationship. Let go of the outcome of the subject you are working on and focus on the quality of your questions and your listening ability. By making this kind of investment in others, your work may actually become easier.

If you have some success with this I would love to hear about it. Send me an email or better yet make a comment below so everyone can benefit from the conversation.