Take the Sting Out of Tough Feedback Learning to Embrace Constructive Criticism

“You have a tendency to step on people’s toes when you’re leading a team. Instead of engaging them, you run them over in your efforts to get the job done.” Delivered from a manager at my first job as a lifeguard, the feedback disconfirmed every perception I had of my fledgling leadership skills.

It stung. But my supervisor was right, and she was right to tell me. She pointed out how people reacted to my behaviour and how it affected my performance. I was 16 and I really wanted the job, which meant I couldn’t avoid her. So I adapted.

A recent post on hbr.org mentioned that when faced with feedback that is more negative than one’s own self-perception, employees are 44% more likely to drop a relationship with a colleague. The statistics are slightly better if the employee must continue working closely with the person providing the feedback, but he or she can still disengage from the relationship in subtle ways.

I often see similar situations in law firms. Feedback is given on someone’s performance of a specific task – writing an opinion letter or interviewing a client. The feedback is repudiated. Avoidance ensues (“I’ll do it myself next time.”) Working relationships dwindle, if not disintegrate.

At best, two solitudes will find a way to coexist. At worst, firms implode. Clients are denied access to the full intellectual capital of the firm, innovation is stifled and employees are left feeling like children caught in the middle of a dysfunctional family.

The author of the hbr.org post, Francesca Gino, says that employees do this because “disconfirming feedback threatens their own views of their skills and accomplishments…and people tend to focus on the positive aspects of their character, personality and behaviour and discount the negative ones.”

How to deal with tough feedback

  • Don’t wait for it to be offered: ask for it instead. Has a colleague been avoiding you since you worked together on something? Do you suspect why? Take the high road and ask them. That said, make your questions about your work product and your approach to the task.
  • Express your disappointment, not your anger, when someone’s perception is different than you’ve previously heard or than you believe. You don’t know the other person’s experience and you don’t know their bias. They might not know yours, either.
  • Ask what you could have done differently and why that might be a better strategy from your colleagues’ or clients’ perspective.
  • Resist the urge to personalize the feedback. You might not respect the person who provided it, nevermind like him or her. But insinuating that their perception stems from immaturity, limited information or mean spiritedness is fruitless (and probably unprofessional).

Thirty years after hearing the feedback from my first supervisor, I still try to keep it in mind (with varying degrees of success). I have since been in work situations where I’ve heard fair criticism that has been delivered well and not so well. It’s the former scenario that has made the biggest impact in helping me improve.

Do you need to deliver some tough feedback? Contact me to discuss your proposed approach (or wait for next week’s post for some pointers…).