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We are all leaders in some capacity. Maybe you lead a company, a small functional group, a volunteer committee, or your family. While rewarding, leadership can also be lonely. Praise comes rarely and you only hear from the masses when they have a complaint to lodge. It can seem that no one is willing to tell you the “truth” and there is no one to help develop your performance. Sometimes, the issues raised are ridiculous. Other times, the truth hits a little closer to home than we might like. Whether feedback is positive or negative, asking for it well and receiving it in emotionally healthy ways can be a leadership superpower.
Novice – “Do you have any feedback for me?”
Seems a simple enough request, right? And yet, how often have you asked this question and received an answer something like, “No, you’re good.” The issue could be with the evaluator. If you’re asking a subordinate to evaluate your performance, the power dynamic is such that you are putting them in a difficult position. Aside from that issue, however, the real problem is with the question.
Intermediate – “Do you have any advice for me?”
Instead of asking for feedback, consider asking for advice. While people are happy to talk about you behind your back (at length sometimes!) it’s human nature to avoid providing feedback to a person’s face. It’s uncomfortable to tell someone what you really think of them. On the other hand, humans seem to have lots of advice at the ready and often share it without even being asked! One reason advice is easier to deliver than feedback is it is forward looking. When you ask for feedback on something you’ve already done, you’re asking someone to judge your performance when there is nothing you can do to improve it – you already did it! It’s awkward because it can’t be fixed. Advice, however, is forward looking.
Advanced – “I’m curious if you have any advice about the clarity of the presentation I just gave?”
Even when we switch from asking for feedback to asking for advice, the lack of specificity remains a problem. It can be challenging for the evaluator to know what to give advice or feedback on when asked generally. By asking for specifics, they’ll be able to focus on what we want to get input on and will feel more comfortable giving us that information.
Expert – “I was thinking about the report I produced and I feel like there was a simpler way to organize the data. That may be why I thought my presentation was a bit muddled. Do you have any advice for me?”
An expert at soliciting feedback goes even further. They know the very specific area they want advice about and are the first to call attention to the issue, protecting the other person’s okayness and making them feel comfortable to talk about the subject as you already broached it.
It can be difficult to hear feedback, particularly tough feedback. Try to remember that there is no “truth”. Everyone has a perspective and the reality falls somewhere in the middle. They aren’t “right” but neither are you.
Consider the perspective of the person providing the feedback. Imagine the leader who is in an enormous cash crunch and has well intentioned staff complaining about the coffee roast in the kitchen. They don’t know what else is going on in the business and shouldn’t be penalized for expressing their thoughts.
Also consider the intent of the person providing the feedback. Is this someone trying to rile you up? Is it a nurturing critic with your best interest at heart?
An expert at responding to feedback will set the stage. Whether they asked for advice or the feedback was thrust upon them, it’s helpful to have your generic response at the ready. After asking any clarifying questions, an appropriate initial response is:
“Thank you for the feedback. I know it isn’t easy to deliver and I really appreciate that you took the time to do so. I want to give your thoughts the attention they deserve, so I’m not going to respond right now, but I will get back to you.”
Feedback puts the evaluator in an emotionally uncomfortable position – they must sit in judgement and deliver messages that could be uncomfortable and even perceived as not fair. It’s far easier to just ignore the problem and hope it will go away. Or to ignore the great performance as, “they probably know anyway” or “I don’t want to seem to be sucking up.” If you’re on the receiving end of feedback from a nurturing critic, recognize that you’re among the lucky. Most people have only the vaguest sense of how they are perceived or how they can improve. Feedback is a generous gift and should be treated as such.
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