Make Negative Feedback a Positive Experience

I love a good fail. There is so much learning that comes out of a mistake and so many opportunities on the other side of it, how could you not love them? I mean, it is just a little more fun being on the leader side of it. It is amazing to work with people to navigate and grow from small mistakes to avoid bigger ones while developing the skills to handle those big ones when they do come up, but I enjoy them for myself as well. One of the best parts about hosing something up for me personally is working with others, who have been there before, on how to fix the situation, avoid it next time, and apply what I’ve learned to other areas. In short, my favorite part is the negative, or constructive, feedback. Even in situations that are successful I want to know what I could improve for the next presentation, project, meal I prepare, or parenting moment. To be honest, as anyone who has ever supervised me would tell you, I get terribly uncomfortable if I get feedback that is exclusively positive. I have gotten overly emotional over the fact that I can’t find the constructive feedback in a review or a conversation. (We all have our own personal brand of crazy and this is mine.)

There has been exactly one time where I received negative feedback that wasn’t constructive and didn’t serve me. It was a devastating hour long assault on my character, motives, and ability to lead or even contribute. There were no specifics given, even when requested, as to where these assumptions about me or my abilities came from. The person repeatedly told me I wasn’t able to influence anyone, was immature, and power hungry. They said, people didn’t like me, even if they acted like they did, and I needed to change but this would be something I’d just have to learn because “people can be mean” (That part was meant as a warning and I’m still not sure if they saw the irony it.). That is when it clicked. This is why people don’t like constructive feedback, even if this isn’t their actual experience, this is how it feels. They feel like they are being labeled as a whole based on generalities and assumptions. They feel like the person giving the feedback doesn’t fully understand the specifics and that these things aren’t true to all instances. If I’m being honest, that is the feeling I get about positive feedback. As they say, when you know better you do better. Once I realized what the problem was in feedback and fully understood it I was sure I could do better in both my preparation for, and delivery of, feedback to the people in my life.

Preparation

Often when we give feedback we provide it based on the emotion we’re having in that moment. That means, if it catches us off guard or if we’re having a completely unrelated hard time, we react differently. Case in point, my four year old spills a cup of water at the dinner table when I’m already stressed trying to get everyone all settled down and eating causes me to yell at him while I feverishly clean up all the water and demand his help (less than ideal reaction I would say). Where as if I’m playing a game with the same four year old and he accidently knocks over a cup of water on the carpeting I calmly say, “Oh no, a spill, what should we do quickly?” Then while cooperatively drying the carpet I explain this is why we keep drinks on the coffee table, so they don’t spill. Or another example from the homestead, I get home with all the dudes and our new chickens. As soon as my dog greets us he runs to a puddle and lays in it. As we carry each chick to the box in the garage he is excitedly running back and forth with us getting puddle water all over us. I’ll spare you the detail but let’s say my reaction to this was also less then ideal. My six year old reminded me that the dog didn’t mean to, he was excited, and we were all dirty from being outside and needed showers anyway.

As we all are well aware, there are way more accidents while we’re not prepared and not expecting them, than when we are so we need to force ourselves out of reaction mode and look a bit more at the intent, impact, and root cause. This does take more work and forces you to slow down before reacting but it will be well worth it in the end. Since Mason put a pretty good bow on my dog example let me wrap up the water ones. There was no intent to make a mess in either situation. Water on the floor and table have minimal impact on anything and can very easily be dried. There is a difference in them though, that does require differentiation in response (not as drastic as it was originally). That is in the root cause. When playing on the floor he was too focused on what we were playing to notice a cup. When sitting at the dinner table he was flailing around trying to be the funny man instead of sitting quietly like he was asked.

Let’s take this one to the office shall we. A while back there were three teammates working on very similar projects but different in their focus areas. Each person worked off of the same outline, same templates, very similar deliverables, but would include different perspectives that they were subject matter experts in. I worked with each of them on their projects and after about six months all three came up short of what they were expected to have completed. The interesting thing was that they were all in completely different stages. One had a clear plan on how the work would be completed and could articulate the status and plan to complete. For another this was a new way of completing the work and he was relying heavily on outside resources which was taking longer. The third didn’t appear to have a strategy started. It was incredibly frustrating but this time I am happy to report I handled a bit better. I knew the impact of not having the project completed and started asking questions to better understand the intent and the root cause so that I could tailor my feedback to each situation.

Delivery

Once you have prepared to give the feedback there are a few aspects to delivering it that are pivotal, first is timing. Provide feedback, whether it is positive or constructive, as soon as you can. If that means assessing a situation and preparing in the moment so that you can provide feedback immediately following the meeting, event, shift, etcetera, do that. If it means taking a night to process, remove emotion, and plan, and provide feedback the next day, do that. The second portion of this is clarity. If you aren’t clear on what you want to either praise or correct with your feedback it will at best have no impact and at worst have a negative impact with a very long tail. People want honest feedback and being vague is only doing them a disservice and won’t get the results you’re driving toward. Finally, it is important to extend grace to the person and I mean this both for positive and constructive feedback. People need to understand that they are bigger than one event, be that success or failure (A word to those of us accepting the feedback you are bigger than that one event.)

When I first began formally managing a team in a professional setting (and I do mean about 3-4 weeks on the job) I had an employee come into my office with tears in her eyes, close the door, and say, “I haven’t done my work for several weeks. I am so behind and I don’t know how to get out of it. I’m sorry this is terrible and I need help.” I asked a few more questions and found out that for about 6 weeks she had done just enough work that it would be difficult to tell in reporting that it wasn’t getting done properly, that is a pretty big impact. There wasn’t any malice behind it, she just couldn’t get motivated and focused while in the office due to some concerns outside of work. She had been doing the job for years so her ability to complete it and with quality result was there. Maybe it was because she brought the problem to me honestly and asked for help, maybe it was because this was the first big leader/team member problem I got to solve, or maybe it was simply that I was so fresh that I didn’t know the HR and performance policies, but I didn’t write her up for this. I explained that this was a problem and reminded her of the timeliness expectations for each aspect of her work that was undone. We made a list of all that needed to be completed and applied it to a calendar that would allow her to get back on track. All of this was in the same meeting. I then asked her to go back to her desk and set up weekly check-ins for the two of us to review her progress and ended the conversation with, “We’ll figure this out, I know you can do this.”

I will admit after a few more months she made significant headway but never completely caught back up. She eventually transitioned on to another team. There are times still that the lack of completed work put me or the team at a disadvantage. That being said, I would make no changes to how I handled that situation. A person came to me for help in complete transparency of their mistakes. I provided clear expectations around the role immediately. Then we worked together to create a go forward plan and she walked away knowing I was in her corner but that she was responsible for getting the work done.

The next time you have feedback for anyone in your life keep in mind there are two sides to supplying it effectively. You need both the preparation to understand what happened, and the quality delivery. In preparation, consider the impact, the intent, and the root cause of those specific circumstances. Then, when actually delivering it, speak to each of those aspects with clarity, as soon as possible, while extending grace. Then, empower them to make a change.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Setting someone up for success is a pretty important last step regardless of the overall impact. For some reason we seem to be much better at empowering people to succeed or improve when the stakes are higher. I will set up a corrective action plan for a team that needs help in a certain area but forget to ask my kid where he thinks the cup should sit so it doesn’t get bumped again. We need that empowerment, tools for success, or whatever you want to call it at each level and regardless of personal or professional. Doing this, especially on small things, teaches people to create their own solutions and action plans when they recognize a problem.

First compartmentalize the feedback, and then relate what you’ve learned to other areas. People are either complimenting or asking for more or better work specific to a time and instance that you’re working in. They are typically not, though it may feel that way, attacking, or complimenting, you or your work on the whole. Compartmentalizing has been a game changer for me and how I hear and apply feedback. Once you master this, then try to apply what you’ve learned more broadly. For example, if you get feedback that emails to your peers comes across too demanding and they need to be softened. That doesn’t mean you are demanding, or all your emails are bad. Once you wrapped your brain around that and see the error in what you wrote, apply what you learned about softening emails to the ones you send your team or boss. Maybe even consider how your requests are received verbally.

Consider all of the above notes on giving feedback while receiving feedback. Did the person giving the feedback prepare? Are they responding based on the intent, impact, and root cause of your actions? Are they delivering timely feedback, with clarity, and grace? If not, they likely could use some coaching in this area. With all of the patience you can muster, ask the questions. Take the kernel you can find to learn from, accept it (even if you disagree), and ask for more. When trying to have them look at intent, “From your perspective, what did it appear my intentions were on that call?” If you’re understanding impact, “I agree I could have handled that meeting more professionally. Can you help me understand how much of an impact that one instance might have?” For clarity, “I understand I didn’t document that well, can you provide some examples of how you would have liked to see it differently?” If you’re not receiving grace I would straight out encourage you to not bother with asking questions on this one. Serve as an example. Give yourself grace, and show it to those around you.

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