Feedback is good...right?
Have you ever worked someplace where the supervisor prided themselves on not “sugar-coating” things, and keeping others accountable? Feedback is good after all, right?
But what happens when staff feels increasingly distant, lacks energy, and engagement? Is the feedback actually having the intended result?
Often a leader may think they are doing the right thing, but in actuality, they are insulating themselves from the very relationships they need to be successful.
So what is the solution? While I don’t believe in quick fixes, I do believe this challenge has one very effective treatment for those willing to consider it. And it’s this: feedback goes both ways.
Feedback goes both ways.
One of the reasons communication does not flow in all directions is because of the power differential that managers inherently have by way of their title and organizational positioning. Without even trying to, managers have power.
This power means managers have to work even harder to ensure feedback flows in their direction as well. Dr. Amy Edmonson discusses this concept at length in her research about the importance of psychological safety for teams. One aspect of this is ensuring teams are able to bring up the toughest subjects that impede their success - even if that subject is connected to their leader’s own behavior!
So if you are an organizational leader, you have to commit not only to asking for feedback, but also to developing self-awareness to recognize behaviors that may block you from receiving it. I call this, the 3D Wall.
Understanding the 3D Wall.
These “3 D’s” create a blockade between leaders and their staff. Let’s examine them:
Defensive - Placing examples of righteous behavior between you and the feedback you’re being offered.
Example - “Well, I don’t think you’re giving me enough credit. Remember that time 7 months ago when we were in that meeting? I totally had your back that day when you really screwed up our presentation. So I think I’m actually really supportive of your work. Remember that other time that…”
The problem with the defensive wall is that it feels like self-protection to the person using it. But what it’s actually doing is isolating the leader from the reality of another person’s lived experience. Being defensive directs one’s energy toward case-building, rather than listening with curiosity and understanding.
Dismissal - A process by which you discredit the competencies, character, or attributes of the person delivering the feedback, thereby discounting its validity.
Example - “You know, they are really young in their career so the reality is, they just may not be cut out for this industry. They don’t really know what they’re talking about…”
Dismissal is an easy out. And typically this one is hard to catch because it’s self-justifying, with a shred of truth. The foundation of this argument may have some truth in it about the other person (they are always late, they are young, older, etc.) The key is recognizing that this quality does not disqualify their feedback.
Disillusionment - A coping mechanism people use to manage feelings of disappointment in a person or system.
Example - “I’ve been in this industry for 20 years. It’s not going to change. If you’re hoping it will, you’re living in a dream world. Face the reality and deal with it.” This can also sound like, “I came into this field ready to make change, and I can see that no one here is actually in it for the right reasons. I’m going to change paths before it’s too late.”
Disillusionment is about a lack of hope, or belief that circumstances can change. This can be difficult because most lines of work do have aspects to them that are systemically challenging or nearly immovable. But if this disillusionment creeps into a leader’s approach, it will be the first tool to destroy any possibility of innovation or creativity. Disillusionment is about feeling stuck.
By using any one of these behaviors, leaders build a wall between themselves and their employees. Brick by brick, these walls are built on minor truths and self-protection. Inside the walls, you’ll find leaders, alone with their “rightness,” but no closer to understanding the needs of their teams.
How to Take Down The Wall.
As a leader, you can train yourself to recognize these behaviors when you are engaging them. The next time a direct report offers you feedback, after the experience, ask yourself these questions:
Was I able to put my defenses down, and listen with humility and curiosity.
Am I dismissing this person? If this feedback was coming from my greatest mentor or someone I deeply respect, how might I receive it differently?
Am I feeling disillusioned or engaged in my work? Is my reaction to this feedback tied to my own relationship with work? What am I trying to protect? Am I being honest with myself about my work?
These postures are easy to talk about and tougher to execute. All of the above has to become muscle memory for leaders. The truth is, our days are typically moving too fast for this kind of reflection. Making it all the more critical that leaders have spaces outside of the intensity of the workday for reflection, community, and support. Healthy and self-aware leaders are less likely to build 3D walls and more likely to create healthy pathways for communication.