In our humbler moments, some of us may admit that in our current jobs or as leaders, as a parent or a child, we aren’t doing as well as we should. Maybe we know exactly where we have fallen short; often we don’t. Even if we think we know, we can’t be sure if those are the areas that matter to the people around us. How can we know? Well, it’s probably possible to test our hypotheses, for example, if we think we are too stingy with our praises, try giving more, then watch see the results. But perhaps the most effective way is to get some feedback.
Feedback – probably one of the more under-rated areas in leadership development. In reflecting about feedback, I have occasionally shared with participants in my classes that if I had a chance to re-live my working career again, the one single thing I would do better is to ask for feedback – from bosses, from peers and certainly from subordinates. Asking for feedback has everything going for it: it demonstrates humility and a willingness to learn. And if improvements come around because of such feedback, it builds trust. Best of all, it is free.
Yet asking for, and giving feedback is so difficult. Why? I think it is because it touches on a very sensitive part of everyone’s make-up – ego. If we hold a lofty position in a competitive organisation or have riches beyond our wildest dream, or married to the person everyone else was pursuing, surely we are better. Or if we take the other end of the spectrum, where we are doing work no one else wants to do, menial tasks at home or at the office, what else do we have except for our pride and dignity? And if even these come under attack, should anyone be surprised if we ‘run’ or ‘fight’? Clearly, being aware and sensitive to the ego of self and others is key to handling feedback well.
The problem though is how we ask for feedback and how the other person responds. A vague question is likely to invite a quizzical look and a desperate attempt to offer an often unhelpful answer. Worse if it ends up looking like an attack on our character, even if unintended in the first place!
So, there are 3 parts to this: to know how to ask for feedback, to know how to give feedback and finally, to know how to receive feedback.
The first two are similar. The best practice suggest that feedback be specific, is focused on behaviours and given in a timely way. So, if we ask, “How was my presentation?” when we are keen to know if it was clear and concise, you might get an unexpected, “You were very muddled!”. Gosh, that sounds like an attack on our ability! Try “Do you think my presentation was clear?” or better “Which part of my presentation do you think was clear? Which part could have been clearer?”, directing the giver of the feedback to focus on the presentation itself and not on your ability (or lack of) ability to communicate. Also, don’t wait for six months to pass before asking for feedback; ask as soon as possible after the presentation.
However, for some matters, it may be good to give the person you are asking feedback from, some time to think. For example, if we asking feedback for our work performance for the past six months, we would probably get a better answer if we were give some time to that person to collect their thoughts before meeting up.
Similarly, if we think we should provide feedback or we are asked to do so, we should focus on the observed behaviour, e.g. “I thought this part and that part went very well. The points were clear. For this part and that part, perhaps fewer words might have been better.”
Although this sounds pretty straightforward, it is, in many instances, easier said than done. Catch a person at the wrong time, or a wrong choice of words, can lead to disastrous consequences. To try to avoid this, some preparation is advisable. This includes thinking about when and where to give such feedback, how to broach or lead in the feedback (saying something nice could help but only if sincere and truthful), what reactions are anticipated, and some responses. As we become more experienced, the shorter the time we need to plan. So don’t run away from having to give feedback. Practice, practice, practice.
And if you are like me and need more time to think when someone asks for feedback, don’t rush. Take the time you need. It is far better to get it right, than to get it fast and coming out wrong.
How to receive feedback is quite another kettle of fish, so to speak. It is entirely within our ability to control, but yet so difficult for some of us, at least some of the time. There are probably many factors such as our regard for the person offering the feedback, our emotional state at the time of receiving the feedback, how the feedback was given and so on. Someone wise once advised, “Don’t ask for feedback unless you are prepared for it.” Yet to be able to receive feedback well is a quality to respect. I would suggest to try two things. First, try to keep the ego in check. Unless Mr Ego steps away, it is hard to open our minds to receive and acknowledge what people are saying about us. Second, try not responding immediately. It might come across as being defensive or a denial. Take the time to reflect on the feedback, so that you can make a considered decision whether to take it and make the change, or file it away. Easy? I’ll admit that for me, this is a constant work in progress. But I am also happy that I am improving. How about you?
ABOUT THE ARTICLE CONTRIBUTOR
Xavier Lim is a senior consultant with Organisational Development Concepts specialising in areas of people-centric leadership. He previously held various leadership roles across various functions at Singapore Airlines, and was a member of the senior leadership team at Tiger Airways.
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