Feedback is a wonderful thing - Isn't it?

“Feedback” is a wonderful thing – isn’t it?

I really, really used to hate feedback … and to be honest, I’m still not that keen… am I the only one?

Take this example, it was years ago – but I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I’d been on a sales presentation with an associate who was new to our business and who I was mentoring – let’s call her Helen.  Despite not being a traditional/ qualified ‘sales professional’ I was actually quite good at what I did.

It worked for me because I believed passionately in the product I was selling and I had my own sales ‘muscles’ that I used to ensure my effectiveness.

She, on the other hand was very much the qualified sales professional, having worked in sales for one market-leading multinational computer hardware company for the 15 years since her since her graduation.

Helen had been on every sales course suggested – and undoubtedly knew her stuff.

Going into that presentation with our prospect, because of what we did I already knew a lot of things about him.

I knew that he wasn’t the ultimate decision maker; that because he was operating outside of his area of experience and expertise it was a decision he didn’t believe he had the authority to own; that he was uncomfortable, believing that at this stage in his career he was neither sufficiently equipped nor sufficiently knowledgeable to make this decision.

I also knew that he was not a risk taker – so very concerned was he about making the “wrong” decision; I knew he would need “time” to think about what I’d proposed – that he needed to process the information I had imparted, to check it out and seek some reassurance from his team; and I also knew that this first meeting was (at best) only the beginning of what would be a longer process.

The meeting went well – I was animated and enthusiastic, he was receptive, polite and interested, and we left with a commitment for an introduction to his boss.  Given what I knew about him, I was pleased with this outcome, and was silently congratulating myself.

As we walked to our cars, Helen looked at me sideways, breathed deeply, smiled and uttered those dreaded words – “Can I give you some feedback?” … independently of the rest of my body, I heard my mouth say “OK – sure”… yet in  my head I was screaming “Nooooooo!!”

Helen then proceeded to surgically and systematically take apart my performance, the ‘sales process’ I was (not) following, my tone of voice, my body language, the chair that I’d chosen to sit on, my hand gestures, the speed with which I spoke, my failure to take notes, and ultimately my failure to ask for his business.

I listened (despite the deafening roaring in my head) – I thanked her for her feedback – I got in my car and sped away … and didn’t speak to her again for a year.

To be fair, I genuinely believe (with the benefit of hindsight) that Helen was convinced that she was giving me constructive feedback – and it was feedback that she would have actively solicited and would have been pleased to receive.

She’s not stopped to consider that I am not her – for as she was speaking to me, another voice in my head was telling me that since she was the expert at this, and despite my years of solid performance, I was clearly pretty poor at what I did… It was meant well yet I was taking it personally, as personal criticism and not constructive feedback.

Helen had seen the lack of a confirmed sale as ‘failure’ – whereas for me, a commitment to another meeting was in itself (in this instance) a very positive outcome.

In her previous organisation, sales meetings were highly analysed and prescriptive in approach and structured, and she was used to selling a product that her customer knew and quite frankly always wanted!

We were selling a service and whilst I do believe in a consultative selling process, I have always also believed that it needs to be tempered by a sincere engagement with the other person.

To be ruthlessly fair to Helen, there was truth in some of her feedback – and I subsequently appraised my ‘technique’ taking on board some of her comments.

However even now, after all these years, I still find myself unable to resist the need to defend my position.  I have to point out that whilst Helen knew how to sell, and it worked in her previous environment, she never did close a sale for us.

Feedback for some of us, like Helen, is relatively easy to give and straightforward to receive – for others, like me it can be a far more tortuous experience and the giving and/or receiving of feedback is far more complex.

Individuals react very differently to feedback.

We will all have met people in our careers to whom it’s possible to be extremely complementary saying very many genuinely positive things with maybe one opportunity for development – and all the recipient will hear is this one piece of perceived ‘criticism’.

There are people for whom the reverse is true – hearing only the one positive message in a piece of otherwise fairly tough feedback.

I have a client (let’s call him Martin) who is very good at what he does – he always delivers quality training which is consistently highly evaluated through an appropriate mechanism.

He only scans the feedback, as he squirms when reading some of the appreciative comments that people write about him – it does however serve to reassure him of his technical competence and as such the feedback is appreciated.

Two years ago he received information that one delegate was not pleased with either his performance as facilitator or indeed the structure of his course.

This delegate did not use the feedback mechanism but rather emailed her line manager with her thoughts copying someone else in the organisation who forwarded the message to someone else – who eventually sent it to Martin.

To say he was devastated would be an understatement and the solid mountain of years of positive feedback was instantly eroded.

When Martin eventually spoke to the delegate after very considerable reflection she was unapologetic saying that her organisation had a strong feedback culture and that it was necessary for her to be honest.

And yet as Martin said, feedback should have been to him;  this was not feedback to him but criticism of him and as such was dishonest – it was not offered with the intention of improving, otherwise perhaps it would’ve been sent directly to him.

Like anything that involves people in ‘feedback’, there is a transaction at work and a subtext at play.  There is cause and effect – there is talking and there is hearing – and what one person says may not be what the other person hears.

As in any form of communication, the ability to understand another’s drives and motivations will improve the efficiency of that transaction.

In an earlier blog we talked about the formal/ informality dichotomy and I think this can be applied to the ease with which people can give and receive feedback without thinking of it as criticism.

If I am a natural communicator who talks easily and who works things out by talking, even by being ‘chatty’, and if I am relatively un-phased by the possibility of failure, I would much rather you tell me stuff (as I will you) – because if you don’t, how on earth can I (or you) otherwise do something about it?.

If, on the other hand I am a ‘perfectionist’ driven to deliver high quality work and need to think long and hard before doing anything –  tending to ‘worry’ about what I do and say (especially if operating outside of my comfort zone), then you are unlikely to know what’s going on in my head – and your “just here to chat stuff through” can, without you ever intending it to, be deeply wounding to me.

It’s a hurt I will perhaps prefer to hide and which may then manifest itself in a type of behaviour that might disconcert you – and you may have no idea why I am behaving like I am – and of course (because you may now have ‘betrayed’ my trust in you) I have no need to tell you.

Feedback for people like Martin can often be difficult to receive because they have done all they can not to be put in a position of needing to be fed back to.

He may perceive feedback as ‘failure’ and may see it as you effectively questioning his competence – and because his confidence may come from feeling competent at what he does, if his competence in what he does is now being questioned (in his perception at least), his confidence in how he does it may now be adversely affected and typically he is now likely to begin to doubt himself.

Because Martin knows all too well how the feedback of others to him can make him feel, there may be times when you literally may be inviting Martin to tell you what he really thinks about something you have said or done – and still he may still be inclined not to do so.

I have another client – he is a dutiful, diligent, conscientious, thorough individual who is very knowledgeable about what he does – he needs to function in a non-conflicted team environment where everyone gets on and unselfishly works as a team to achieve the company objectives.

He was given the feedback that he was “too nice” and that he needed to more “disruptive” – there was no more chance of that happening than him flying to the moon!

What’s the point of feedback if you are suggesting to someone they do something or act in a way that is patently not the way they were designed to?

If there is a peer relationship at work here it will be tough enough – but if there is a boss/ subordinate dynamic to take into account that can inevitably makes things even more complex.

One of the tenants of NLP is that there is no such thing as failure – only feedback!  Some of us will no doubt struggle with this concept!

But if we persevere, it can be of tremendous value in our on-going professional development.  As Woody Allen said “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

So if you find yourself in the inevitable position of needing to give someone feedback, here are some thoughts worth considering…

  • Are you evaluating against the same yardstick? – “success” may mean something different to me.
  • Is there any personal bias at work? – you will do things the way you need to – other people might do it differently and can achieve the same objective by exercising different muscles.
  • Is it honest feedback delivered sincerely with the intention to improve?  If not, don’t do it!  Feedback by definition is historical, the person you are talking to needs to be able use this information in the future otherwise it has no purpose.
  • Is the feedback necessary – does it really need to be said? You might want to say it but does the person need to hear it? – and how will it affect your relationship?  Do you want to not hear from me for a year?!
  • Are you feeding back in the way that makes sense to the recipient? – feedback is of course usually spoken – there are individuals who might like to receive it in written format first so that they might reflect on it before talking about it.
  • Are you feeding back to the right person?
  • Is the feedback possible for the individual to act upon?
  • Check that the individual is receptive – know their drives and motivations and guard against perceived criticism.  Couch your feedback according to the needs of the person you are talking to – not how you might prefer to hear it.
  • Ask for feedback on your feedback!
  • If the feedback is not well received – let it go… explain and clarify but don’t become defensive of your feedback – defensiveness is the antibody to feedback.
  • Be sincere whatever the message – there is much guidance about positive reinforcement – giving as much positive feedback as “negative” – I think there is much to be said for saying that if you have something to say – then simply say it!
  • Don’t store things up until you have numerous things to talk about – feedback needs to be given as soon as possible.

And if you’re on the receiving end, here are some thoughts on receiving feedback…

  • Know yourself – and if needs be, brace yourself!
  • People are generally kind and well intentioned – remember that!  Sometimes it’s taken real courage for the person to open their mouth to you and they have probably done so because they care.
  • It’s usually not personal – so don’t make it so!
  • It’s ok to ignore it – if it doesn’t resonate, tune it out – It’s often one person’s opinion and it may not be reliable – you might want to confirm it with others to be sure.
  • Choose to listen to the people you trust, or check out feedback from others with people that you trust.
  • Don’t argue – by all means clarify and thank the individual, just don’t get defensive – as we’ve said, defensiveness is the antibody of feedback!
  • Face to face feedback is infinitely preferable to any form of electronic/ email/ social media feedback.  Where no-one looks you in the eye – take it all with a huge pinch of salt.
  • Evaluate it – it might not make sense immediately but it might if you take time to mull it over.

Ok, so time for me to be brave. I’m asking for feedback – let me know what you think! – And now you know how that makes me feel….. be kind!

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