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HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #5

The Paradox of Feedback

This newsletter is the fourth in a series of 5 dealing with bad habits.  It is based partly on the book by Marshall Goldsmith called "What Got You Here Won't Get You There".  There is a link for purchasing this book below if you wish to dive in deeper on the process of eliminating your own bad habits.

In the first three newsletters in this series, we discussed the concept of eliminating bad habits.  Once again, bad habits creep in to our behavior over time.  Many successful people convince themselves that their bad habits are strengths and points of pride, and the bad habits become even harder to break.  People move up because of skills, results, and luck, but are often eventually derailed by their bad interpersonal habits.  I described some bad habits in the areas of communications and competitiveness in the last two newsletters, but there are many others.

So, what are your bad habits?

Discovering and accepting feedback about your bad habits is by far the toughest challenge in the process.  No one really wants to hear or accept negative feedback.  Even if you are the most open person in the world, getting criticized is painful.  Even when we ask for feedback, there is a part of us that instantly wants to defend or explain our behavior.  And because we don't want to get negative feedback, we feel bad about giving negative feedback to others as well.  Managers feel a tremendous amount of stress about giving negative feedback even when it's part of their job.

The culture of Corporate America also does not put value on feedback.  People are conditioned to "not rock the boat", "not burn bridges", "deal with the devil you know".  When was the last time you saw someone rewarded for giving their boss negative feedback?  Many companies have stopped doing exit interviews, because even the unhappiest leaving employee has learned to not go on record with bad things to say about the company for fear of repercussions, even when the chances of ever returning are 1 in 1000.

So, the paradox of feedback is that it's critical to identifying and eliminating bad habits.  But you don't really want it.  And no one really wants to give it to you.  So, how do you find out what your bad habits are?  Here are four possible ways to find out.

  1. Ask Others

    Asking people for feedback seems like the most direct approach.  However, there can also be difficulties with this approach.  First, it's uncomfortable for the person being asked, and you may get a watered-down response.  It's much easier to try to avoid the conflict.  Also, there is an expectation that you will accept the feedback.  If nothing changes and it's never mentioned again, the feedback giver will feel like their input was discarded, and trust will be broken.

    The best way to ask for feedback directly is to focus on a future positive outcome for others.  In other words, don't say "Tell me something bad that you saw", but instead ask "What could I do to become a better _________ (manager, employee, spouse, etc.) for you.  This shifts the focus on a positive outcome for the person giving feedback, and you will probably get a better answer

    After receiving feedback, remember to say "thank you" (and per my March newsletter, shut up!).  Be very careful about not become defensive, or trying to justify your behavior.  Remember, you asked!

  2. Observe the way others act towards you

    If you could watch a video tape of all of your interactions with others for a week, and remove all of the filters of your own perception, you would learn a lot about your own bad habits.  Goldsmith describes a technique where people write down every comment made to you or about you for a week.  After a week, patterns emerge that show you things that you may not otherwise see.

    For example, I happened to notice in the workplace that every time I started a presentation, the audience sat back in their chairs and made jokes with me.   I started to wonder whether this was something I was doing.  For about a week, I kept track of this, and found out that I was constantly interjecting humor into all of my daily interactions.  As usual with this series, I had always thought that making jokes was a strength, but it finally dawned on me that I needed to dial it back or I wouldn't be taken seriously.

    Observing yourself can be eye-opening, but it's also very difficult to trust that you are not seeing what you want to see!

  3. Trusted Confidants

    Having people you trust who will tell you the difficult messages is very important, but they are very hard to find.  Confidants can be co-workers, family members, friends, etc. who in contact with you regularly and have only your best interests in mind.  They are people who you have mutual trust with, and you know that there are no hidden biases or motivations.  They can give you feedback, and not let you off the hook when you try to defend or explain your actions.

    However, recognize that most of the people in your circle do have an agenda.  Family members may want security, co-workers may have competing interests, etc.  This is the reason that many successful people seek out external coaches for feedback and development, where the mutual goal is their success.

  4. Anonymous feedback

    I could write an entire book on the 360 degree feedback process.  As of this writing, there are 465,000 Google hits for 360 degree feedback.  There are companies who offer online tools to implement 360 degree feedback, questions benchmarked around good managers or good results, and books about how to use this in the workplace.  I won't repeat that here, but I will give you my opinion on a few critical success factors.

    I am a believer in using 360 degree feedback for development purposes.  However, I am not a believer in using it in the workplace as a performance metric (i.e. to decide compensation).  I think that there are too many ways to try and manipulate the process to get good results.  For example, I've bought new cars over the last 20 years, and have been amazed at the different ways I've been threatened, bribed, or manipulated by the dealer asking to give all 5's on the dealer survey.  Clearly, they don't want the feedback, just the reward from positive answers.

    The nice part about 360 degree feedback is that it's anonymous and a lot of people can participate.  You will get feedback.  You will be expected to take some action with it, but the hidden agendas are removed.  The downside to this process is that you may not get all of the supporting detail you need to act.  It's not a good idea to then walk around and ask, since it will be perceived that you are trying to break confidentiality.  This is where a trained facilitator/coach can help you interpret and accept results, and put together an action plan to make improvement.

In summary, using a combination of these methods will get you some feedback.  The difficult part is interpreting, accepting and internalizing the feedback.

Tips for Getting Feedback

  1. Find a key person in your career/life, and ask them "what could I do to be a better _______".  Say thanks, then take a note to follow up in a month.
  2. Observe people's comments/body language towards you for 1 week.  Keep a log.  At the end of the week, review the log and look for trends.
  3. Find someone to help you implement and interpret 360 feedback.
  4. Read "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith, available at Borders Books.

Once you are comfortable that you have the feedback, all that's left to do is to turn it into an action plan.  We will conclude this series with that topic in June.

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate