Feedback is a necessary element for any successful business, and because business is a form of personal interactions and relationships, feedback is essential for the health and growth of relationships in all aspects of our lives. It’s also one of the most dreaded and potentially damaging interactions that we have with each other.
During my diverse career in veterinary practice, university, and corporate organizations I had my fair share of giving and receiving feedback. Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly keen about either, and I was in very good company. While there certainly is an art to providing criticism or feedback, very few among us seem to have gained mastery in these skills, or even attended art class, for that matter!
Receiving feedback can be even more daunting, and understanding why we typically dread feedback, even while feigning appreciation, can allow us to listen to even the most biting criticism without wilting or melting into a puddle of tears. Let’s face it, most of us are our harshest critic, so who needs help from others? During our lives we have amassed and refined an arsenal of shame, guilt, and self-doubt which are fodder for elaborate internal storytelling about ourselves. This is completely normal, albeit unhealthy, so when we receive legitimate feedback, our inner critic and all of its associated feelings are activated. Our reaction is usually along the lines of wanting to find a place to hide or to react defensively. Either way, we aren’t listening and we certainly aren’t learning.
Optimally, learning is what feedback is supposed to be about. In its most innocuous form, feedback is simply information that one can use to improve some aspect of doing something. One may have a deficiency in a skill that is needed to perform a specific task, or a person may be advised to alter where he directs his efforts. In some cases, feedback may relate to how a person behaves, which can be useful because we are often oblivious about how our behavior is perceived by others. The point is, feedback can be beneficial, because, after all, nobody is perfect.
NOT PERFECT? WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN, NOT PERFECT? Ah, our inner critic. Always at the ready! So, what are the crucial elements for giving and receiving feedback without sending a person’s inner critic to Defcon 1 and instead having it be effective and productive?
In order for feedback to be effective it needs to be linked with an opportunity. Otherwise, feedback is just complaining, which reflects a fundamental shortcoming of the complainer.
If your manager doesn’t like the way you are performing in some way, and all he does is point out what’s wrong with what you are doing, what he’s really saying is, “The way you do that is annoying to me, but I don’t know how, nor I don’t want to invest the effort, to help you improve. Just do better!” Isn’t that helpful? No, of course not, and worse, it is destructive to the relationship. Fundamentally, it destroys trust. This is inexcusable when it comes from a manager, whose job it is to ensure that employees have the necessary skills to perform their job. Sure, you may not be performing optimally, but that is usually because you are lacking some critical skill, which may include interpersonal skills. Assuming that you are reasonably intelligent and there was a good reason to put you in the position in the first place, it is the manager’s responsibility to provide the opportunity for you to improve your performance.
And yet, I see feedback without opportunity, aka complaining, all the time. It was commonplace throughout the organizations in which I worked during my career. It is one of the primary concerns that I discuss with my clients, who are often referred to me because their manager is dissatisfied with how they are leading their team or other aspects of their personal interactions. In many cases their manager wants me to “fix” them, and of course, that’s not how I approach our work together at all. I always see this as an opportunity for the client to grow personally and professionally, according to the outcome that they envision.
Several years ago, my manager recognized issues in my dealings with direct reports, and yes, it was difficult to receive feedback about these shortcomings. However, I was very grateful to be given the opportunity to work with a leadership coach, and I was determined to get the most out of our work together. I wasn’t focused on trying to ameliorate my boss’ concerns, but rather I was motivated to expand my skillset, foster better relations with my direct reports, and perform my work with greater ease and effectiveness. The temporary sting of his criticism was replaced by the optimism of developing new skills and habits.
At another annual review, the same boss told me that I needed to get more actively engaged with the leaders of crucial operations at our European headquarters, whose functional areas were perceived as not working well together and creating costly inefficiencies in the business. I needed to be more engaged and persistent with these leaders, and more to the point, I needed to get out of the office and go meet with these people. The implication, which was accurate, was that I was avoiding direct confrontation with these leaders and using email as a safe way of engaging, or even avoiding, these folks.
So, what was the opportunity? I was instructed to make at least a half dozen trips to Europe that year to meet with various leaders there and create more transparency and collaboration within the organization. I felt like a fledgling bird being kicked out of the nest. Sure, it was scary at first, but once I spread my wings and took flight, it was exhilarating. People welcomed me and were genuinely happy that I had traveled to hear their perspectives. In my discussions I uncovered long-standing silos that were well recognized, but for which no one really knew the reason, much less a solution. By bringing the key people from different functions together to share their common concerns and interests, a dynamic that had caused tremendous inefficiencies and complaining was replaced by a collaboration that enhanced productivity and made everyone look good. This was accomplished in just a few months, and it was made possible by candid feedback and a challenge to get out of my comfort zone, tied with the opportunity for me to grow my leadership skills.
These were great opportunities for me, and the key was what I made of them. It was entirely up to me how I used these situations to grow both personally and professionally. That’s the crucial factor in successfully linking feedback with opportunity. Whereas a manager may see a situation that needs to be fixed, the astute manager will recognize that the best solution is the one that the employee develops and implements herself. Yes, that individual needs appropriate feedback that clearly contrasts the current situation with the desired situation. The feedback recipient often needs to be given suggestions or direction in how to acquire and implement new skills. Most importantly, she needs to be given the space to do it her way. This is the essence of empowerment, and along with opportunity, it is a key factor in actionable, effective feedback.
Of course, there are many different types of relationships in the workplace and in our personal lives, and the same guidelines are apropos to these as well. Unless linked to some opportunity that the recipients of the feedback can take as their own, pointing out something that they might improve upon is just complaining. In our closest personal relationships this can even come off as nagging. Often, it’s best to just suffer in silence, such as enduring the deafening din of our partner chewing their food, all the while pondering what the opportunity could possibly be in this situation!