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.

Next week I will add 4 additional considerations to giving and receiving tough feedback. In the meantime, what do you think Mia and Toni could have done differently to get a better outcome? I’d love to hear your comments.