Imagine your boss calls you on Friday evening and says he wants to meet you on Monday morning at 11 to give you some feedback. What are you going to think? How are you going to feel? For many people, thoughts like, ‘what did I do?’, ‘have I goofed up somewhere?’, ‘what is he thinking of me?’, ‘am I in trouble?’, ‘am I going to get fired?’ etc will start plaguing them. They’re going to feel anxious or upset. They will not be able to relax that weekend.
Feedback, while one of the most powerful development tools, is also one of the most misunderstood, misused and abused words in the corporate world. It’s because many people don’t understand the difference between feedback and judgment. If I tell you, ‘you’re a moron and you never listen to me’, that would be judgment and you would feel attacked and therefore want to defend yourself. However, if I say, ‘I feel I may not have explained myself clearly, could you please tell me what you’ve understood so far?’ I’ve used feedback and followed it up with a question. This is non-threatening to the person I’m talking to and more effective in getting my message across.
People normally think that feedback means something about them and they divide it into positive or negative feedback. They feel really good about themselves when they get ‘positive’ feedback and really upset with others and themselves if they receive ‘negative’ feedback.
The perspective we share with the participants in our leadership workshop is that feedback is just neutral information. It doesn’t say anything about you but is someone’s perspective on the effectiveness of your action. It’s not a fact and so it can’t be true or false. It’s just how your actions come across to that person.
World champions – sports stars, CEOs of companies etc have coaches who they pay a lot of money to just for their feedback. They invite that feedback. They listen to the different perspectives and then they make the final choice. And because champions view feedback as information and understand that it is for their development, they can derive that information irrespective of how the feedback is given.
For example, suppose you deliver a report to your boss and he says, ‘this is the worst report I’ve ever seen.’ This can be a provocative statement but if you want to derive the information out of it, it could be that the report did not match his expectations. If that’s the information, then your response (instead of getting upset) could be to ask what his expectations are. But suppose you do ask the question and again your boss says angrily, ‘what’s the point, I keep telling you but you give me the same shit every time.’ Now that’s what he has said, but the neutral information could be that he feels he’s told you many times but you still haven’t met his expectations. If that’s the information, you may say something like, ‘sorry boss, please tell me one more time and I’ll write it down this time and make sure you get the report by afternoon today.’
However, the reason we don’t see the information present in feedback is because we are afraid that it says something about ‘us’. It matches our own beliefs. For example, if someone says you broke a commitment, and your belief is that if I break a commitment it means that I’m a bad person, you will not hear the person saying the neutral words ‘you broke a commitment’, you will hear them say ‘you are a bad person’ and then you will get angry and upset and feel judged.
The problem, though, is not that the other person might be judging you but that you’re judging yourself. If someone called you a flying purple rhinoceros, you would probably just laugh it off or even poke fun at them. But if a girl is sensitive about her weight and someone calls her fat, she would get upset – not because they are calling her fat but because she believes that she’s fat or not good looking.
What is your relationship with feedback? What are some of the distorting beliefs that get in the way of you receiving feedback? What would be possible in your life if you started viewing feedback as neutral information?