The science and art of receiving feedback as a way to improve performance management within organizations is examined by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone…
Honest performance conversations don’t happen – at least not as frequently as they should.
It is a complaint that crosses industries, spans geographies, runs up and down the hierarchy, and suffuses organizations large and small. Candid conversations about performance are avoided, soft- pedaled or stumbled through. In fact, according to a 2010 study on the State of Performance Management, a survey of 750 HR professionals by Sibson Consulting and World at Work, 63% of executives believe that the biggest challenge of performance management is managers’ unwillingness to have difficult conversations. And, according to another study by Globoforce (2011), even when managers tackle them with the best of intentions and a solid set of skills, employees are often left feeling resentful or discouraged – 55% of employees believe their review is inaccurate or unfair, and one in four say it is the thing they dread most in their working lives.
You already know the challenges; you live them in your organization. We all do. And our usual approaches do not seem to make much of a dent in the problem. Below are three common mistakes managers make in trying to address the problem and what can be done instead to both dramatically improve the quality of conversations in your organization and accelerate your own learning as a leader.
We teach giving but not receiving. The usual response to the organizational feedback challenge is to teach managers how to give feedback more skilfully – how to frame the conversation, what words to use and how to be persistent when feedback is resisted. That makes sense, and the more skilled the feedback giver is, the better.
But it is still a “push” model of learning and it doesn’t change a fundamental truth: the receiver is the one who decides what they let in, how they make sense of what they hear and whether and how they choose to change. It doesn’t matter how much authority, power or skill the giver has, if the receiver isn’t ready or able to hear the feedback, learning is blocked. In fact, damage may be done in terms of trust, engagement or motivation.
Sharpen your darts all you want – if the dartboard is made of steel, it’s not going to help.
This is not to say that your colleagues are totally impervious to feedback. Taking in negative feedback is something all human beings struggle with. The dilemma is built in: we want to learn and improve, and at the same time, we want to be accepted and respected just the way we are now.
You can’t “train” that dilemma out of people or get around it by using exactly the right words; it will always be with us. But you can teach people to manage the resulting tension more skilfully, to have better two-way conversations about feedback and to drive their own learning.
You can cultivate a “pull” model of learning, where the receiver shares the responsibility for turning any feedback – even poorly given or off base feed- back – into something useful to them.
Here are two examples of skills that receivers can learn.
First, we can be taught to “spotlabels”. Most feedback is delivered in labels, which convey very little information. Labels like these: “Be more assertive”. “Work on your people skills”. “Take your performance to the next level”. Each of these could turn out to be a valuable piece of feedback, but, as stated, each could mean almost anything. The mistake receivers make is to assume we know what the giver means and decide to accept or reject the feedback based on the label. Instead, we should reserve judgement until we understand where the feedback is coming from (ask: What did you observe me do that prompted concern? What are you worried about if I continue to do it this way?) and where the feed- back is going to (ask: What specifically do you think I should do differently?). Too often we dismiss the feedback label immediately (“I’m plenty assertive!”) or assume the giver means something they didn’t.
When told to be more assertive by his sales manager, one young salesman began pressuring customers to decide ‘right now, today before you walk out the door’. His manager was horrified. By “more assertive” she meant more animated, more engaged with the customer, more openly enthusiastic and caring. The managers intended meaning was the opposite of how the sales person interpreted it.
A second skill: often when we
receive feedback we “switchtrack”,
which effectively kills the conversa
tion and blocks any learning. What
is switchtracking? It’s this: your
colleague asks for your help handling
a particularly difficult call with an
unhappy client. By the end of the
call, the client decides to go forward
with the next big phase of the project.
After hanging up, relieved and ebul
lient, you receive an email from your
colleague saying that you were interrupting others on the conference
call and that it came across as rude
even culturally inappropriate.
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