My first year of work taught me a very important life and career lesson – on feedback.
This story has stayed with me for the last 14 years and has shaped my willingness to listen to others. Feedback is important in life, as children we get it unasked by our parents by our teachers by elders and by well wishers who want to ‘fix’ us. We often grow tired of the constant volunteered information about ourselves. Over the years, I have explored this idea personally and in works of personal development to shape up my beliefs around it. This blog post is summary of what receiving feedback is all about and what to do with it.
Why listen to feedback?
We all know why it is important. It is for self improvement and development. It actually is more than just self development. Feedback tells you what people perceive of you. Yes, you knew that too. But there is more to it. For example, one of colleague was given feedback that she was not organized. Her feedback from the conversation was not a reflection of her abilities so much as how her work relationship needed to be with her boss. I remember seeing difference in the way she documented things for her boss while she continued her work with same random fashion as she always did.
Lesson 1: Approach feedback with open mind and listen to their feelings. Reflect with detailed context of your relationship with the person, their motivations, their personality and values.
How and what to listen?
Stay calm and remember the conversation is about what people (or a single person) think of you. It may not be correct reflection of you. At the same time, you have to get the message right because perceptions are reality. If they are wrong then you may want to fix what people think of you.
Listening to feedback makes more sense with follow up questions. These questions should be exploratory in nature and not sound confrontational or challenging. Going back to earlier example of my colleague who was told she is not organized. She started with clarifying exploratory questions. Few of her follow up questions were – “Could you elaborate on that?”, “I would like to know instances where this was visible to clients and team members”, “What steps you recommend for me to be more organized?”, “What is the impact on people’s perception of me due to this?”. At the end of the conversation she reflected on the conversation and this is how she summarized the conversation to me. Her boss was meticulous and had a plan even for how to plan work. She on the other hand was ‘cross the bridge when we get there’ person. There was no challenge in timeliness or quality of her work. Her team members were fine with her style of work and she ensured appropriate communication with them. It was her boss who could not relate to her approach towards work. She went on to tell me that she figured that she needs to provide her boss with sense of comfort with approaching her interactions with him differently.
Lesson 2: Ask questions to explore the details, ask for specific instances, facts, behind your back conversations etc to know more.
How to manage your emotions?
There is no straight answer to this except than to remind yourself constantly that this time is dedicated only to listening. At the same time, don’t allow for it to become ‘thrash you’ or ‘strip you’ session. If you don’t understand the above phrases, these are sessions to rip you and your work apart in a derogatory manner. In such sessions boss/ colleagues often resort to personal remarks about your ability or question you to demeaning levels.
One of my bosses once got really personal accusing me of being insensitive and arrogant. I was tempted to ask if my arrogance hindered my work, but I suspected him to tell me it hindered my relationships. Considering he was the kind of boss who thinks he is always right, I did not want to argue and turned the course of discussion instead. I provided him with instances of my good relationships with team and clients. When he tried to challenge me, I challenged him to go take my feedback from just about anyone I had work relationship with. I did add that I was confident that I will get more than 80% positive feedback and was sure that this feedback would also provide me with concrete areas of improvement. Further in this session when he got personal, I asked him to share instances for me to understand my shortcomings better. By the end of conversation he was compelled to be objective when sharing feedback with me. At the same time I had realized that my boss had negative perceptions which I needed to fix. I did take this as a setback, it is never good for your boss to not like you! I dedicated some time to mourn over the fact that my promotion will be delayed and I will get less bonus. After a week, I knew I had to keep my emotions aside and had only two options – to change my boss’ perception or to move on to different team or job altogether.
Lesson 3: Don’t react but respond calmly and remember its people’s perception of you. They may not always be right.
How to not defend yourself?
It is natural to want to justify your actions or decisions. Specially when its your boss and you know that they are completely off track. Hold the urge and explore alternates. Ask the person to be specific on what could have been done differently.
Confession: I do often end up saying one or two statements in self-defense. On why I am who I am or about my style of work or influences on my decision. The sad realization at the end of every conversation is that I should not have said that one statement.
This urge is also elevated when feedback provider is your team member. As a manager, we seem to have a bigger say. Our team members are more likely to listen to us. There are multiple reasons for this. Managers are the decision maker for employee’s salary and promotions, in short team member’s career; managers are often more experienced than the team member; managers act as mentor or coach to their team members and role reversals are not as common. There are always exceptions; some managers are able to create environment conducive to open communication making some of my recommendations irrelevant to them. Back to the discussion on how to not defend yourself.
Try not to explain yourself right at the moment. Set a follow up conversation, it gives you time to reflect on the conversation. You also tend to be more calm after the initial emotions have passed. It allows you time to frame your response more factually.
I was once accused of not communicating enough to my boss on one of the projects I was working on. He was visibly upset and called me out on a team meeting. After the meeting I took half hour break to calm myself and requested for 10 minutes time to discuss this at length. I shared all the emails and conversations I had had with him. At the end of the conversation, he still accused me of not setting up special time to update him on project progress. It was wrong of me to assume that he would read the emails or pay attention to updates when I spoke on team calls or ask me for special update time for this project. Sometimes you can never win! It is very contextual and depends on who you are interacting with. Take a break for some time to calm yourself before you decide whether it worth the effort.
There are exceptions where you should take the conversation head on but this should be only when feedback is biased and non-factual. For example, my head of department during my catch up meeting with him asked me to take full blame of an escalation. This was one of those moments to not hold back and discuss facts to put things in perspective.
Lesson 4: Justifying your actions often goes against you. Timing of your response is very important and sometimes your actions suffice.
What to do with the feedback?
I have partly covered this above. Listen, reflect, clarify and make amends as required. You should at times look at getting second opinion where you can so that the feedback has less person bias. This can be done directly or indirectly. And yes this is applicable when someone says positive about you too. Ask your colleagues for your strengths and areas of improvement. Do so with earnestness without holding them onto their perception of you. This is where all rules of seeking feedback and the above lessons apply.
Identify patterns in your past feedback and see whether there is a need to overcome them and how. Work on your feedback and in next discussion, review with the feedback provider if they see a difference. Acting on feedback is the culmination of receiving feedback.
There will always be few things you discount and discard. Be cautious with what you discard, you may just want to park it for later. Sometimes its good to be aware of what people perceive of you and your action may just be to work this awareness to your benefit. For example, if you are recognized for your attention to detail, you may ask for projects and work that require your acumen. If your feedback is that you are over confident, you may use it your advantage while making a presentation where your confidence will work to your benefit.
Lesson 5: Acting on feedback is the result of receiving feedback. Act judiciously and leverage your new found self awareness.
For further reading here is an HBR article on how to receive feedback – http://hbr.org/2014/01/find-the-coaching-in-criticism