I was contemplating the other day, why we, as humans, face the prospect of feedback with such anxiety and trepidation. You know, when your boss comes to you and says “can we talk”? Or when you start feeling anxious going into your annual performance review meeting.
The research supports it: people generally do not like receiving feedback, particularly if it is constructive or challenging in any way.
Frankly speaking, when I got into this work of helping to develop leaders, it became clear to me that feedback was something I was going to have to “get tough” with. Feedback was everywhere, around every corner. In our business, you get an evaluation after every delivery – those numbers are the most tangible and immediate feedback you are going to get.
Furthermore, continually, my leaders were there ready and eager to provide me with their observations. I had to be prepared to accept it, take it in and decide what to act on after every delivery or following a sales meeting … whenever it was presented.
In the beginning, I felt exhausted by it — confronted almost. But now, interestingly, I am totally onboard with it. Let me tell you why.
As Ken Blanchard puts it, “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. If you want to be in continuous development, if you want to “up” your game – you need to be open to feedback, and more importantly, you need to be actively seeking it out.
Leaders are often focused on how do I give difficult feedback to my direct reports? Agreed it is tough, especially given what we know about how people receive difficult feedback, but it is almost the wrong question. The real questions are: how am I demonstrating an openness to feedback and am I actively seeking out feedback to grow and develop as a leader?
In my case, development could not simply happen by telling myself a series of stories of what would make a difference – I needed to know how others are seeing it, how others are perceiving me.
Moreover, my leaders are great at modelling this type of feedback-seeking at every turn, meaning they acknowledge with their inquiry that they aren’t perfect, even as seasoned professionals. This gave and gives me permission to recognize the same is true for me; I could continuously develop over time by accepting open and honest feedback.
Interestingly, now that I have come to fully accept feedback as a desirable constant in my life, it has presented itself in all kinds of domains. For example, I was listening to an interview with singer and songwriter Josh Groban on CBC recently in which he describes one of his most poignant experiences with direct and candid feedback.
On one of the first meetings, Josh sang for renowned producer, composer and arranger David Foster. After Josh sang for him, David said, “I’ve heard you sing it better; you were a bit flat, but not bad”. Josh recalls feeling taken slightly aback at the directness of the comment.
At this point, he could have responded two ways: 1) let his ego get in the way, and allow himself to be offended or 2) he could shake off any “offense” he felt and decide to accept the feedback in the spirit in which it was given, with honesty and candour.
Gracefully, Josh went along the lines of #2. He quickly realized, I’m not going to get better if people aren’t honest with me. Today Josh has built a career based on compilation and partnering with people whom he trusts and respects to be honest. He knows that surrounding himself with that type of team gives him the best chance at producing quality and enduring work.
So using this example, I ask myself: isn’t that what we all ought to have? A trusted team we are in “development” with — meaning they are carefully and purposefully holding us to account when necessary, celebrating and bolstering us at times, but giving us the hard truth at times too.
We all can create these development teams for ourselves, and so that’s where I live these days. I see the team I work with as a trusted team I am in development with.
Now don’t get me wrong, not every day do I feel “up” for feedback. The truth is, we’re all complex beings and life can be messy. In my opinion, not all moments can be about development.
Someone at a client site said to me the other day, “sometimes you just want to hide” and I get that. So I say again — not all moments can be about development; in those moments, be kind enough to yourself and bold enough with your team, to say “maybe not today”.
And hopefully, probably, you’ll be up for it tomorrow.
Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant