Do you know how you really come across to people, and what they think of you? What are you actually like as a boss or colleague? What is it about you that your staff find most inspiring, and which of your strengths do they value the most? And do you ever behave in ways that frustrate or demotivate them? In what areas do they think you should improve, and why?
Finally.. how many of these questions are you able to truthfully answer, without guesswork or assumptions? Because the only way you can absolutely know the answers to questions like these is by asking your people, making it ok for them to tell you the truth and provide you with good quality, honest feedback, and being prepared to listen and absorb it.
For many of us, receiving feedback isn’t something we particularly enjoy. Being criticised, especially if the criticism is unexpected or seems unfair, is not usually pleasant. And even when the message is positive, many people also feel uncomfortable receiving compliments or praise.
But if you are able to get over the discomfort, it’s probably true to say that good, honest feedback is one of the most powerful gifts it’s possible to get from someone at work. Feedback from other people is fundamental to knowing the reality of how you come across, the impact you have on them, and how well you approach your work, make decisions, manage pressure, communicate, collaborate and lead. Becoming more self aware through feedback is the first step towards knowing what to improve in order to become more skilled as a leader, manager and colleague.
This all sounds great in theory I know – but being on the receiving end of critical feedback is still difficult and awkward a lot of the time. So how can you overcome all this to really benefit from the feedback that comes your way?
Make It Ok For People To Tell You The Truth
One of the biggest barriers to receiving critical feedback about ourselves is overcoming the natural reticence of people not wanting to hurt our feelings or saying something that might be career limiting for themselves. So instead of suddenly hitting them with something like “I’ve called this meeting because I want you to give me feedback on my leadership. Go!” which will elicit a few homogenous platitudes at best – give them some notice. Try “I’m serious about improving as a leader and in order to do that I want to understand what I’m good at and less good at. I need your help because you know me well, I trust your judgement, and I know I can rely on you to be honest with me about the things I am less good at, as well as the better stuff. Please can you give this some thought over the coming week. I’ll book some time with you next week, and what I’d like to hear from you is 2 things you think I am good at and 2 things you think I need to improve. If you can think of any examples to help me fully understand, that would be even better.”
Remember You Are Human...
Just like everybody else. You have enormous strengths and skills – otherwise you wouldn’t be where you are today, having achieved all that you have. However, in addition to this, none of us are perfect: we all have areas where we can improve. So regard any critical feedback you are given as a chance for you to learn more about the improvements you can make, in order to be more effective in the future.
Allow Time For It To Sink In
When we receive information that’s significant but unexpected (positive, or negative) our immediate response – be it shock, disappointment, anger, elation or whatever - isn’t always the most appropriate or helpful. Let yourself experience the emotion, and then release it and try to accept what you have heard more calmly and rationally.
Keep It In Perspective
It’s not unusual for people to allow one piece of negative feedback to overshadow all the great things that they do and forget the positive stuff about themselves. (Similarly, I have worked with some people who only paid attention to the praise and disregarded important corrective feedback they were given.) So allow the feedback to add to the psychological picture you already hold of yourself, rather than replace it or skew it. Again, this sometimes takes time.
Show Interest And Ask Questions
You may need to explore the feedback in greater depth, assuming you can do this constructively, without being defensive or threatening. In what situations have they observed you behaving in this way? What was the impact or consequences? What would they like to see you doing instead?
Look Below The Surface
In an ideal world, all corrective feedback would be wrapped up in tactful language, and delivered in a supportive tone by someone we believe has absolutely our best interests at heart. But it doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes feedback is clumsily expressed, or comes from someone we don’t particularly get on with (so they would say that, wouldn’t they), or sometimes we think even with the best will in the world, they are just plain wrong to think of us like that. What then? Well – with tactless comments, simply look beyond the language at the essence of the message: there may well be some truth there, perhaps expressed harshly, but still a helpful point. With the feedback from the person you don’t like – again, they probably have an important point to make, so look beyond any relationship issues and focus on what you can learn from their feedback. Finally with the feedback you simply don’t agree with – well, be honest with yourself first. Is there not even a glimmer of truth in what they say? If the answer is – sincerely – still no, then ok. But they have a perception, and they have been brave enough to share it with you (if that’s what they’re thinking, you’d still rather know, surely?). So while you might disagree with their view, you do have something to work with in terms of that person’s perception of your style and how you might manage your relationship with them going forward.
Don’t Get Defensive Or Argue With The Feedback
Instead, try one of these: “thank you for letting me know, I wasn’t aware I did that and I can see how that would look from your perspective”, or “thank you for telling me that, could you please tell me some more about my tendency to behave in that way” or if you really believe they’ve got the wrong end of the stick try “thank you for sharing that with me, I wasn’t aware that’s how I can come across, can I just explain more about what’s going on for me in these situations..” although handle this last tactic with care.
Reflect On What To Do Next
Once you have accepted that this is the view held by your colleague, you can decide what you want to do with the information. Don’t be too quick to either dismiss it or take it to heart – do it justice by fully reflecting on it first. When you’re ready you can decide whether you agree, partially agree or disagree with the feedback. Whichever you decide, you do need to accept that this is the view held by your colleague, and acknowledge that it might not have been easy for them to share it with you, so thank them.
Being able to receive feedback constructively is a great skill. Done properly, the benefits are like looking in a mirror: just as we take a look in the mirror in the morning before we leave the house - to check our hair’s ok and there’s no toothpaste down our shirt – feedback represents the truth of how we come across to those around us. Knowing other peoples’ views of you and how you might improve is a hugely powerful lever to improve your effectiveness. Leading without feedback would be like going through your working life without ever checking the mirror.
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Photo Credit: Feedback by Dennis Skley