None of us is perfect, so why is negative feedback such a bl***y minefield?
Today I’m revisiting the topic of feedback. This post comes with thanks to Alain de Botton. Those who have seen his talk on Why We Will Marry the Wrong Person may recognise that he has inspired parts of this journal post today.
Hands up if you think you are easy to work with. If you raised your hand, then I’d like to respectfully disagree with you. It’s very unlikely that you are easy to work with. Firstly, because you are human and secondly, because what makes you not easy to work with is as much about the preferences of other people as it is about you. If you work with more than one person, then the chances are almost zero that you are to everyone’s taste.
So, let’s say you accept that there are some ways in which you are not easy to work with. Hands up if you think you know what those ways are. Ok, so I’m not going to disagree with you here, I’ve no idea how self-aware you are without meeting you but it is likely that there are things you don’t know. Firstly, as Johari’s window reminds us, there are always things we don’t know and furthermore there are always things we don’t know we don’t know. Secondly, people just aren’t good at telling us what our flaws are. Our friends don’t tell us, they’d rather encourage us. Our current partners don’t tell us, they don’t want to get dumped or divorced. Our ex-friends and ex-partners and ex-colleagues are probably best placed to tell us but, for whatever reason, they decided that leaving was a better option.
It is highly unlikely that we know all of what we need to know about what makes us difficult to work with and this leads us to some dangerous flawed conclusions. One of the flawed conclusions we might come to is that because we are not getting lots of feedback, that there’s nothing wrong with us (see my first paragraph). Another is that we are hiding our imperfections well; getting away with it so to speak. This is, of course, a delusion. A stranger who follows you round for half a day at work could probably make a good assessment of what makes you hard to work with. Have you ever caught yourself on film when you didn’t know you were being filmed? It’s a stark reminder that we are being experienced all the time from all angles by other people. We might tend to believe that what people see of us is in our control. The image that we see in the mirror or the posed selfie is what we might think people see most of the time. But of course this is just the image we project. Once you’ve seen the back of your own head on a video you can no longer hold on to that delusion. You will see the way your hair sticks up from your crown or the hunch of your shoulders and you will know that however hard you try to project perfection, your imperfection is constantly leaking.
There’s something going on here that relates to our self-esteem and it’s another dangerous assumption about feedback. It’s the assumption that if we get some feedback from someone about the negative impact we have had, then it means we are unloveable, all bad, we have no value. This is a mistake. The fact is that all the people who are working with you currently are choosing to work with you despite your flaws. They value you with your flaws. In the pros and cons list that they write about you in their heads, there are more pros than cons – otherwise they’d be an ex-colleague by now.
These are the colleagues that we need to ask for feedback. They can help us become better leaders by giving us the data that’s outside of our awareness. Unfortunately, these colleagues also know that it can be really hard to hear feedback. They know (from their own experience) that when our image of ourselves as perfect or as ‘getting away with it’ is popped like a balloon we can feel incredibly deflated. This deflating experience is not something a kind colleagues wants us to feel.
What is more, our colleagues might have been burned before with feedback giving. They might have given feedback to someone, or in such a way, that the discomfort of hearing the feedback led the receiver to:
deny or defend
self-flagellate or self-criticise
get angry, bossy or go on the counter-attack
cut you off and ignore you in future.
These are all very real and normal defenses against the discomfort of hearing that we are neither perfect nor kidding anyone that we are. So this whole thing about negative feedback gets screwed up and the avoidance of giving it becomes the easiest route.
So what’s the remedy? I think there are two. The first remedy is to change the story about feedback. We need to talk about it differently in organisations. We need to talk about the inevitability that none of us is easy to work with – there are only pros and cons, upsides and downsides, strengths and shadows. And we need to acknowledge that feedback is often hard to hear and to normalise the difficulty of giving it and receiving it. If we can learn to accept that the giving and receiving of feedback between two members of the homo sapiens species is just always a bit of a minefield, we can treat it like any other leadership challenge, something we have to learn about and get better at.
The second remedy of course is to practice. Giving and receiving feedback can’t be learned in theory, only in practice. It will have ups and downs and sometimes it will go better than others. Feedback practice is made much easier by three things in my experience:
1 Leaders inviting feedback regularly rather than waiting to get it.
2 Using the language of impact and intention. A feedback conversation is always about impact and not an assumption of negative intent.
3 Leaders owning their own defences against the discomfort of hearing feedback. If a leader can share what tends to happen to them when they receive negative feedback (e.g. I might get a bit defensive but I’ll go away and reflect on it later), the giver of feedback is not made too afraid or too responsible for what might happen next.
In the background, every leader deserves and should get support from coaches, mentors, supervisors, trusted advisors and friends with whom they can process negative feedback or the impact of a difficult feedback conversation. This should become a normal and regular conversation for leaders, not just something we have to do every 5 years when someone is brave enough to burst our bubble or when we mess up a difficult conversation. We are all a work in progress and we are all learning about the minefield of honest conversations all the time.
For those interested in giving feedback with care, please see my post on Feedback and Shame