Rich was a plant manager with a 10,000-person workforce producing a billion dollars of product per year. He was a pro at his craft and highly respected in his industry. I met with him and his team weekly as an organization development consultant for a couple of years. Someone from HR asked him to participate in a new program called “360 Feedback.” He had never heard of such a thing but thought it seemed worthwhile. “After all,” he told me, “feedback is the breakfast of champions!”
He dutifully identified about 24 director reports, peers, and others to fill out the structured surveys. Two weeks later, he received his feedback — all gussied up in an official looking folder with pie charts, line graphs, and verbatim quotes from his colleagues. The results left him feeling crushed. For days afterward, he arrived at work early, locked his office door, and didn’t emerge until others had gone home.
Most people dread both giving and receiving feedback because we’ve either experienced — or imagined — an episode like Rich’s. We heard something about us that provoked painful emotion. Or we expressed concerns to others and they recoiled in horror. Our belief that these types of exchanges will carry a high probability of hurt makes us understandably reluctant to invite them.
When feedback goes badly, we draw exactly the wrong lesson from the experience. We assume the problem was the content. For example, Rich concluded that the pie charts, line graphs, and quotes in his feedback report created the misery he felt for the subsequent two weeks. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Feedback doesn’t have to hurt. In fact, under the right conditions, there is nothing we want more than to know the “truth” as others see it. We want to know how others feel about us and our performance. I’ve worked closely with dozens of senior executives over the years — and the number one complaint I hear from them is that people won’t tell them the truth.
The predictor of misery is not in the message itself; it is in how safe people feel hearing the message. If people feel psychologically safe, they crave truth. If they feel unsafe, even the tiniest hint of disapproval can be crushing.
When I discovered Rich had cocooned himself in his office, I knocked on his door. His feedback report was sitting in the middle of the blotter on his desk. When I asked what was so hurtful in it he said, “They think I’m controlling! I can’t believe it. They think I’m a micromanager!” The irony here is that prior to receiving his feedback, I had asked for his predictions and he had said confidently — and with a bit of a smirk — “They’ll ding me for being a control freak.” Now having heard the very message he expected, he was feeling leveled by it. Why?
Clearly it wasn’t because of the content. You can say almost anything to someone if they feel safe. Likewise, you can hear almost anything, if you feel safe. Now let me be clear — I’m not suggesting negative feedback will make you feel giddy — but I am suggesting that if you feel psychologically safe you’ll be able to hear it, absorb it, reflect upon it. Rich’s misery didn’t result from feedback about a personal weakness, but from his conclusion that the feedback was a personal attack. It was his belief about intent not his disagreement with content that generated his despair.
Here are some principles for helping yourself and others feel ready to give and receive feedback.
Rich could have avoided a lot of pain by monitoring his own motives and safety prior to tearing open his envelope. Others could have mitigated his reaction by assuring him of their positive intentions in offering their critique. Pain is not an essential byproduct of feedback — it is the result of an absence of safety.
Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.
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