Few questions are more cringe-worthy than, “Can I give you some feedback?”
“No thanks. I’m full up.”
“Who are you again?”
“I have some for you too. I’ll go first.”
“GAAAAA!” while running out the door.
Our thought is: What fresh hell is this? At which point our hearing goes. Febsack? Frickfrack? Whatever feedback we receive is often unintelligible because:
a) no one has ever followed “Can I give you some feedback?” with “You were spectacular in the meeting today…”
b) and if they do, we’re waiting for the “but…”, which we really didn’t want to hear today
c) all we want to know is: who thinks I’m flawed and why? Because while I may not be perfect, I work really hard around here!
d) we don’t know what’s at stake. Can we ignore the feedback and get on with our lives? Or if we don’t make an immediate shift (from what to what is often unclear), might we be made available to industry?
And while the feedback giver could use some coaching, so could we. Our kneejerk response to feedback - deny, deflect and defend - doesn’t work, doesn’t help. The feedback giver and the feedback receiver are both at fault.
No wonder feedback has a bad rap. And yet, we need it because our careers, our relationships, our lives succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.
Where we live 99% of the time is in the “gradually” part of our lives. That promotion you received was not a miraculous event. You earned it one job well done, and then another, and after another. One successful conversation at a time. You are aware of the many things you did over time to get where you are. On the other hand, if your career is lagging or if you’ve ever been terminated, you probably recognize in your heart of hearts that you arrived at that negative not “suddenly,” but one poor job after another, one failed or missing conversation at a time. The sad thing is, many people are shocked when they don’t get a promotion or are terminated because they truly had not realized things were so bad.
One thing’s for sure: when a negative suddenly arrives, we are instantly ON ALERT. It’s a bad day if we thought we were doing fine and suddenly learn that our boss, co-workers or customers see it differently. Now you’ve got our attention.
I think of feedback as a conversation in which we help ourselves and others stay awake during “gradually” so that we arrive at our desired “suddenly,” rather than the dreaded “suddenly”.
Imagine what it would be like if rather than waiting six to twelve months for a formal performance review to learn how you’re doing, you knew at all times how you were doing in the eyes of your boss, your colleagues, your customers, your life partner, staying wide awake during “gradually.” There would be no negative “suddenlys.” You’d always be clear about what you were doing well, what you could do even better, and any potentially significant roadblocks to your success and happiness. This is the goal and the outcome of feedback, and with it, the end of the performance review as we’ve known it. “Wow! I am really excited about my performance appraisal today!” said no one ever.
Sadly, some leaders are still clueless. At Fierce, a current employee told me about a former employer:
“My last position mirrored some of the worst practices you’ve talked about. For example, during my six-month performance review, we were asked to rate ourselves, then have our management rate us. The first stage of self-evaluation was when the floor fell out from underneath me. After submitting my review to HR, I was told that I rated myself too high. I pushed back and told them this is how I felt about myself. Second round, same thing. HR said I couldn’t submit my review until I brought my score down. Again a push back. Then the COO emailed me saying that even he didn’t rate himself as high as I did and I needed to use “his scores” as a guide on how to rate myself. This went on and on as you could imagine. And when it came time for them to rate me, my immediate supervisor tasked delivering the results to me to a junior level manager and refused to discuss any questions I had about his report. Talk about making a guy feel good, right? This was just the tip of the iceberg with this company.”
Since the first edition of Fierce Conversations was published, a marvelous sea change is underway in the world of performance management. Savvy organizations are shifting the landscape of performance reviews, turning them into face-to-face conversations, some of which are initiated and led by employees. You decide what to discuss. You schedule the meeting. You lead the conversation. No more anonymous comments and rankings! Instead of chasing metrics, employees are focused on true growth and development.
It might help to think of feedback as a series of waypoints to keep you headed in the right direction. If you don’t receive feedback and adjust accordingly, you may find yourself off track and on your way to a negative “suddenly.” Career-wise, my trajectory was not a straight line through space. It looked more like a winding map, with one-way streets and stop signs…
… with plenty of help, aka “feedback” along the way, some welcomed and some resented, even rejected. Looking back, I see that all of it was helpful, even comments that came from a place of sexism or prejudice, because they helped me understand the mindsets around me and helped me change minds or change the game. Reality was interrogated, learning was provoked, and I took the next steps on my journey.
A bonus is that when we stay current with the people important to our success and happiness, assuming we are clear with one another, we can make the shifts needed to get back on track or to continue to be our amazing selves. And if we arrive at the firm belief that it’s not me, it’s YOU, parting company won’t be a surprise.
And wouldn’t that be a good thing!