By Jennifer Hibbit
I’ve written before about giving feedback, this Coaching Tip is about receiving feedback and by doing so practicing your contextual leadership skills. In our recent executive program, one of the participants shared her experience during a performance appraisal that shifted from an indictment on her character to a simple tweak in her behavior without any upset. It was the way she shifted the context during her performance review that I thought was insightful and admirable.
Jane (name has been changed) is a VP in the learning and development division of a large hi-tech company in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has an incredible track record with the company for well over a decade. She is a respected leader and has weathered many storms. It was time for the yearly performance review and she wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary, but was shocked when she saw that one of her peers rated her low and wrote the comment, ‘can be scary.’
Like any normal human being she began to jump to conclusions. She asked herself: ‘Have I been intimidating lately and haven’t been paying attention?’ ‘What have I done such that he would rate me so poorly?’ ‘The business challenges have been pretty stressful this past year, have I been too intense or short tempered with my staff and colleagues?’
Then she realized she had just walked down that dark alley of her mind (we say in our programs, ‘don’t go there alone!’) and decided to get curious about the feedback she just received. Of course she was triggered, anxious, and scared (‘this goes in her record, could make a mark on her career after all!’), but she went to the source to clarify his feedback.
In her conversation with her colleague, she just started asking questions to try to see what it was he saw about her that would have his conclusion be that ‘Jane is scary.’ After being in conversations with him for fifteen minutes, he told her that basically, it came down to that she puts too much information in her slide sets and people can’t digest that much. It scares them into inaction. That was it! No drama, no big upset! She told him that she would take care of that for the next meetings and invited him to give her feedback next time.
She made several contextual leadership ‘moves.’ Her actions left her with more freedom and power rather than going down the rat hole of ‘what have I done’ or ‘what a jerk; how can he do that to me’ and leaving it there. Here are a couple of practices around receiving assessments, either at work in performance reviews or in your personal life.
Don’t walk down that dark path alone.
Letting you brain take over and listening to ‘the committee’ may not leave you in the most powerful place. Gain clarity on the feedback by having a conversation and asking questions with the person delivering the assessment. For example, let your coach know that you need to vent for 15 minutes about what happened, but his or her response at the end of the conversation should be, ‘Thanks for sharing. Now what actions or conversation are you going to take so you have more choice and power about the conclusions you’re making?’ It’s good to vent and process, but don’t stay there too long. Do it responsibly. Don’t have the conversation with a colleague or someone too close to the situation. You wouldn’t want to start or perpetuate gossip; it’s destructive.
Go to the source of the feedback.
You may be nervous, scared, or anxious. That’s okay. If you want to know what had them say what they said, then it is imperative to listen with fascination and curiosity. Most importantly, remain open and have in your mind, ‘what do they see that I don’t see?’ Be listening for how did they get to that conclusion. Don’t justify or defend, just listen. Have them ground their feedback, ‘So when X happened that lead you to think what?’ For more help here, look at last month’s Coach’s Column on ‘Grounding Your Feedback.’
Remember that it’s only a conclusion.
It’s not a fact. Conclusions are not immovable or unchangeable. They can be changed by conversations – by speaking, listening and asking questions. Conclusions are not true or false. They are just conclusions. They can be valid or not. They can be useful or not. The decision is ours.
At IWL, we have a strong preference for the saying, ‘it happened on my shift.’ This concept can sometimes be tricky because it’s subtle. At some level, if someone has created an interpretation about you and delivered feedback from that interpretation, it may be important to be responsible about the conclusion they have come to. Taking responsibility for how another sees you, gives you some power to do something about it.
In this conversation you may need to make an apology, clean up after your behavior, communicate what your intentions were, make new agreements or set new standards. Look to see where you can commit to new actions or make requests, offers or promises to the other person.
Authentically doing so often creates an opening for the other person to see more clearly or compassionately than what she or he previously assessed. Sometimes it also prompts an act of taking responsibility on his or her part as well.