A few nights ago, we received my sixth grade son’s quarterly evaluation. Unlike a traditional report card with classes and grades, this is a more qualitative review. It showed some areas for growth, and ended with the observation that my son could get better at being more self-reflective. When we shared the report with him, his first reaction was to reject it all: “This is slanderous, it is all lies, who can we sue?” While his reaction might seem a bit extreme even for a 12-year-old, the instinct may seem familiar to many of us when faced with unexpected feedback. Our instinct may be to protect our sense of self-worth in that moment and not look for the growth opportunity that lies underneath. Getting feedback like this requires that we either, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “grow a skin like a rhinoceros,” or be ready with a sense of self-awareness that takes cultivation and practice, “to take criticism seriously, not personally,” as Hillary Clinton advised.
As women leaders, this advice – to stay self-aware and open to feedback – may at first blush seem to contradict an earlier post in this series on quieting your inner critic; however, I’d argue that they are more closely aligned than you’d image. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, authors of Thanks for the Feedback, found that the majority of leadership-coaching literature is focused on delivering, not receiving feedback, and found that most of that effort was lost. In order to be able to give productive, proactive feedback, the recipient must be primed to receive it, starting with honoring “the part of us that wants to learn and grow, but protects the desire that we are respected for where we are, right now.” Giving ourselves permission to recognize growth opportunities, especially when they make us uncomfortable, will prime us to be able to filter the feedback with what we know to be true about ourselves.
This stance may be effective at other times, as well. We cannot (and shouldn’t) think we can just manifest this once a year around evaluation times. If we aim to achieve the habit of excellence, especially around our vision or mission, this must become a daily practice. Before seeking feedback from others, you might begin with a question: Are your actions in alignment with your intentions? (Or as I said to my son, “are you bringing your best self to school?”) If you think you are working your tail off, but spend more time on Skype complaining about your boss, you may be surprised when she calls you out on that, only fueling the inner critic that says you’re not good enough, and your boss will never be happy. However, if you were juggling multiple priorities and needed to reschedule preparing a presentation at the last minute, a person whose actions were in alignment with her intentions would recognize the feedback that this presentation was pulled from her fanny and make a mental note to juggle differently next time, and move on to her next task.
After you do that inventory, you may want to check for legitimacy within teams you work with. “Hey Janice from Accounting, you asked a great question in that briefing last week, can I ask, was there anything I could have done better to help sell my idea?” If Janice says, “I wish the PowerPoint had more kittens,” you can check that against your own filter. If she says you should slow down and take a few breaths before moving on to a new slide, you can think back to that moment of feeling breathless as you raced against the clock and recognize that as great feedback and something to work on in the future.
Then, pay attention to what happens, keep checking back in to see if you are in alignment, and when that annual evaluation rolls around, you may surprise yourself by how much you are looking forward to it.
On the flip side, there is no dearth of research on giving feedback; organizational psychologists and leadership experts have created branded models of how to give constructive feedback. Do you sandwich the feedback with praise/criticism/praise, which leaves employees feeling confused but managers feeling accomplished? Or do you go the old SBI route: identify the Situation, name the Behavior, state the Impact on you, which keeps all the power with the person giving the feedback and may leave the employee feeling boxed in and defensive? Like receiving, giving feedback takes an equal measure of self-awareness.
Speaking of power relationships, one of the most difficult is when you need to give feedback to your boss, and not have it sound like you are complaining. This is scary even in the best scenarios, but as a boss, I can tell you that this is what makes the difference between a good employee and a great one. As leaders, we can only get better when we know where those opportunities are. I love it when my team comes to me and begins with the phrase “there is something I need to manage up on.” I drop my guard, assume the listening stance and lean in in anticipation. This is my teachable moment, and a chance to model receptivity to feedback.
Feedback doesn’t have to be scary, but you do have to wrestle with the realization that there is always growth in that uncomfortable space where teachable moments lie.