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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

None of us is perfect, so why is negative feedback such a minefield?

Today I’m revisiting the topic of feedback. Specifically, why negative feedback is hard and what we can do about it.

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 only 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 all you do is 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. 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 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 might lead us to some dangerous flawed conclusions. One of the flawed conclusions we might come to is that, because we are not getting lots of negative feedback, there’s nothing wrong. Another is that we are hiding our imperfections well; getting away with it so to speak. This is, of course, a delusion. 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. As Sonia Nevis pointed out, once you’ve seen the back of your own head on film, 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.

Those of us who find negative feedback hard to take can take it badly because we blow it out of proportion or make it binary. A comment about a particular behaviour can be interpreted as meaning we are unloveable; valueless; all bad. The fragile ego isn’t a very subtle thinker. Our colleagues are much more sophisticated, able to cope with shades of grey. They are choosing to work with us despite our flaws. They value us with our flaws. In the pros and cons list that they write about us 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 more. They can help us become better leaders by giving us the data that’s outside of our awareness. But we have to help them do this because these colleagues are nice! They 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.

Our colleagues are also a bit scared, they might have been burned before with feedback giving. They might have given feedback to someone who got defensive, who cried, who got angry or sulked. 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 the avoidance of giving feedback 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 the inevitability that none of us is easy to work with – there are only pros and cons, upsides and downsides. And we need to acknowledge that feedback is hard and normalise the difficulty of giving it and receiving it. If we can learn to accept that it’s just always a bit of a minefield, we can treat it like any other leadership challenge; something we have to work at.

The second remedy of course is practice. Giving and receiving feedback can’t be learned in theory. 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 expecting and inviting negative feedback regularly rather than waiting to get it. Ask ask ask.

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 negative 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 should get support from coaches with whom they can process negative feedback and develop in response to it.

Footnote: For those interested in giving feedback with care, please see my post on  Feedback and ShameThis post comes with thanks to Alain de Botton on Why We Will Marry the Wrong Person. 

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