People get defensive when they receive negative feedback. It’s hard not to. Everyone wants to be seen as competent, and when we receive negative feedback, our competence is called into question. So we react.
There are several things you can do to reduce others’ defensiveness – ensure you have a trusting relationship and thus have earned the right to give feedback, watch your words, deliver feedback in a private setting, etc. But for today, I’m going to focus on getting a second opinion.
If you want people to be more receptive to your feedback, consider encouraging them to get a second, third, or fourth opinion. I’m a fan of casual 360-degree feedback – when we ask for feedback from people we work with both inside and possibly outside the organization. Think of 360-degree feedback like an orange, it’s all the way around, like a sphere. When you get 360-degree feedback, you gather input from all the different types of people you interact with, thus getting a more comprehensive and accurate picture of performance. There are different types of 360-degree feedback. 360-degree feedback ranges from the formal – an online, anonymous survey (I’m not a fan) – to casual conversations (which I recommend). In this instance, I’m suggesting something I call The Core Team.
I suggest everyone has a Core Team of about five people who love you, know you well, and have your back. Most important is that you trust these people. Your Core Team may be personal or professional relationships or a mixture of both. You may have worked with Core Team members or not. What all Core Team members have in common is that they know you well, want what’s best for you, and will tell you the truth when asked.
My core team consists of a friend from high school, two people I used to work with, and my parents. When I get feedback that I’m having a hard time reconciling, I ask people on my Core Team to validate the feedback. It doesn’t matter if they’ve worked with me or not. I am who I am. I do the same annoying stuff in my personal and professional relationships. So a personal Core Team member can provide valid, professional feedback and vice versa. Sometimes they agree with the feedback I’ve been given and sometimes they don’t. But I always get compelling information to think about. And because I trust the people on my Core Team, I listen to what they have to say.
Don’t be disheartened if people don’t trust your feedback and aren’t receptive. Instead, see their resistance as human and encourage them to get a second opinion. And then talk again. Listening to and incorporating feedback is a process. It takes time, courage, and patience.
You get an email that annoys you, hit reply, type up your thoughts, hit send, and feel instant regret. We’ve all done this. We’re frustrated and we let the other person know.
Feedback via email is always a bad idea. You don’t know how the recipient will read and interpret your message. You can’t manage the tone of the message or give the person a chance to respond. And more often than not, he’ll reply equally frustrated. And now the non-conversation begins –back and forth, back and forth.
I’m consistently surprised at how much feedback is delivered via email. And it’s only gotten worse with people working virtually. I’ll admit to occasionally being guilty of it too. I’m in a hurry and I want to get something done quickly. Or my emotions get the best of me and I feel compelled to respond to a situation quickly. So I send an email or a text message that I know I shouldn’t send. Then I regret it and spend the rest of the day apologizing and feeling badly for communicating impulsively.
If we want people to want to work with us and perform, we need to consider how our actions impact them. Yes, it’s easier to send a quick email or text. But it invariably annoys the other person and damages your relationship. People can work with you, around you, and against you. If people want to work with you, they’ll work harder and produce better work.
Never underestimate the human ego, which is easily bruised. You are ALWAYS dealing with someone’s ego. When someone (anyone) calls our competence into question, we get defensive. Becoming defensive when receiving negative feedback or when someone questions us is a gut reaction. Not becoming defensive takes a great deal of self-management and is unusual.
Slow down. When you need to give feedback, ask yourself what you want the other person to do. Then ask yourself, how do I need to communicate to get the result I want? Then pause, breathe, and pick up the phone.
Sometimes people take credit for our work. It happens, sometimes purposefully, sometimes not. The key is what we do when things like this take place.
I’m going to suggest that you use the lowest level of intervention possible to resolve challenges.
When a coworker takes credit for your work, you could say:
1) “I noticed that when talking about project X during last week’s department-wide meeting, my name wasn’t mentioned in conjunction with the project. Why is that?”
Or you could say:
2) “Thanks for highlighting the X project during last week’s department-wide meeting. I’m glad the project got some exposure. I noticed that my name wasn’t mentioned in conjunction with the project. I want people to know they can come to me with questions about this project. In the future, will you tell people that I wrote the plan?”
Feedback can be given directly, “You did X and it frustrated me.” Or feedback can be given by asking a question and making requests, “Will you be sure to mention my name when you talk about X project?”
Some might call option one passive and even disingenuous. Both methods produce the desired result – the other person knows that you know what happened, and you’ve requested different behavior. One method may incite conflict, one most likely won’t.
Be as direct as your relationship will allow. There are people with whom you can be very direct, without consequence. And there are some relationships that can’t withstand direct feedback.
Most of the people I talk with in organizations believe they can’t give feedback without negative consequences. The only way to know how direct you can be is by trial and error. Give a little feedback, see how it goes. Give some more, see how it goes. You might be surprised at how honest you can be. And when there is backlash for giving direct feedback, next time, give less. Ask a question or make a request instead. Asking questions is another form of feedback. It’s just less direct and thus less confrontational.
We train people to treat us as they treat us. You will get both what you ask for and what you allow. What are you allowing?
Most of us wait to give negative feedback until it’s the right time, aka the recipient won’t get upset. Or we wait, hoping the situation will resolve itself. If something is really an issue, the likelihood of either happening is pretty slim. The right time to give feedback is shortly after something happens. I’ll offer up the 24-guideline and the one-week rule. Wait 24-hours to give feedback, if you’re upset. But don’t wait longer than a week.
The purpose of giving positive or negative feedback (I like the words upgrade feedback) is to motivate someone to replicate or change a behavior. That’s it. Feedback is supposed to be helpful. If you wait longer than a week to give either positive or upgrade feedback, the person isn’t likely to remember the situation you’re referencing and the purpose of giving feedback – to change or replicate a behavior – will be lost.
Here are four practices to make negative (upgrade) feedback conversations shorter, less painful, and more useful:
Giving feedback practice one: Agree to give and receive feedback at the onset of relationships. Do this with everyone you work with – direct supervisors, direct reports, peers, internal and external customers, and vendors. If we’ve doneHow to Say Anything to Anyone training for your organization or you’ve read the book, you got the specific language to have this conversation.
Giving feedback practice two: Prepare for feedback conversations by writing down what you plan to say and then delivering the feedback to a neutral person. Ask that person to tell you what she heard and what her expectations would be, based on what you said. Confide in someone either at your level or above at work or someone outside of work, to keep the gossip to a minimum. Ask for confidentiality.
Giving feedback practice three: Tell a neutral person about your situation, and ask what she would say to address the situation. Everyone but you will do a better job at giving feedback. Feedback conversations become hard when we’re emotionally involved. The guy working at the 7-11 will do a better job than you. Seriously. It’s our emotions and concern about the other person’s reaction that makes feedback conversations challenging.
Giving feedback practice four: Agree to do a weekly debrief with the people you work closely with, and follow-through. Answer the questions – what went well this week from a work perspective and what would we do differently if we could. Answer the same questions about your working relationship. Giving feedback about your relationship will be hard at first. It will be easier the more you do it. Be sure to say “thank you” for the feedback, regardless of what you really want to say. One of the reasons giving negative feedback is so hard is we wait too long. Shorter, more frequent conversations are better than long, infrequent discussions.
Giving negative feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Follow the suggestions above and remind yourself that the purpose of giving feedback is to be helpful. If you were doing the wrong work, you’d want to know. And others do too.
At some point in your career, you will likely get feedback that doesn’t feel accurate. When receiving feedback you question, rather than dismiss it, vet the feedback with the people who know you best. Assemble a core team of people who know you well, love you, and have your back. The relationships may be personal or professional. These are people who will tell you the truth (as they see it) if you ask.
You might think that you’re a different person at home and at work, thus your friends’ and family’s input isn’t valid in the workplace. That’s untrue. You are who you are, and you’re not a completely different person at home and at work. It’s just not possible to be your real self and turn it on and off at work. Sure, you might have a communication style that you only use at work. You may make decisions at work differently than you do personally. And you are likely to dress differently at work than at home. But you’re not a completely different person after 5:00 pm. If you’re often late, don’t keep confidences, talk too much and too long, or wear clothing that is not your friend, your personal relationships can tell you that.
It’s important to know how you come across, your reputation, and your wins and losses at work. Having this information allows you to manage your reputation and in turn, your career.
So the question is, with whom should you vet feedback that doesn’t feel quite right?
Receiving feedback criteria one: Your core team should be made up of a small number of people (five or fewer) who know you well, love you, and have your back.
Receiving feedback criteria two: You should respect core team members’ opinions.
Receiving feedback criteria three: You must trust them and their motives, in relation to your well-being.
Receiving feedback criteria four: You must be open to rather than dismissive of core team members’ feedback.
The right answer to feedback is always, “Thank you for telling me that,” regardless of how much the feedback stings. The easier it is to give you feedback, the more you’ll get when you ask in the future.
Core team members don’t need to be told they’re on your core team. Simply call these people individually when you need input. Tell them the feedback you’ve received and then ask for their opinion.
It’s easy to dismiss feedback that’s hard to hear. And the feedback might just be that person’s opinion. But people talk. And one person’s experience of you can impact your career greatly. Manage your career assertively and powerfully by knowing your reputation. Find out the impressions you create. Then you can make decisions about changes you will and won’t make.
Results are often considered more important than the seemingly ‘softer stuff,’ how people got those results. And it often doesn’t feel legitimate to want to get rid of an employee who treats coworkers poorly. We question ourselves thinking, “Maybe it’s not that bad? Perhaps I’m being too sensitive?” Or, “He does great work and is really reliable. Maybe I need to get over that he throws me under the bus in meetings I don’t attend?” “It’s really hard to find and keep good, reliable, employees. I should just suck it up.”
What if employees who treat coworkers and direct reports poorly or don’t practice your organizational values aren’t good employees? People don’t want to work for a manager who is knowledgeable but mistreats people. And likewise, people don’t want to work with people who are super friendly but do no work.
Some organizations evaluate employees both on the results they achieve and how they get to those results. That makes perfect sense.
Here are six tips for hiring and firing employees for fit:
Share your organizational values and behavior practices overtly when you interview candidates. Make it clear that people who don’t follow those practices won’t be happy or successful in the organization.
Create an opportunity for candidates to do an extended practical interview, during which they can get a feel for what the culture is really like, outside of a formal sit-down interview. Then give candidates an opportunity to opt-out of a job because they didn’t feel they fit in during the practical interview.
Trust yourself. If you find it off putting that a coworker raises her voice at you, gossips about you, or takes credit for your work, trust yourself.
Set clear expectations around how employees, coworkers, vendors, and customers are expected to behave when doing business with your organization. And be willing to let internal and external customers and suppliers go because they aren’t willing or able to follow your behavioral practices.
Many of us are hesitant to give peer feedback. We worry that giving peer feedback will damage our relationships. We wonder if we have the right and if it’s our place to give peer feedback. And we are concerned about what the consequences of giving peer feedback will be.
Giving peer feedback isn’t so different from giving feedback to a friend or even a direct report. While you have an implicit ‘right’ to give a direct report feedback, doing so without building trust will ensure your feedback falls flat.
People respond to feedback in predictable ways. Most people get upset and defend themselves. This is normal and natural. Negative feedback conflicts with our desire to be thought well of, which all people (despite what they might say) want. People are more open and less defensive when they trust the source of the feedback and trust the sources’ motives. Follow these practices when giving peer feedback and your feedback will hopefully be well received.
Think about why you want to give feedback. Really think about this. Is your desire to help the person change a behavior, or are you just being judgmental? If your intention isn’t to help someone replicate or change a behavior, say nothing. It’s not feedback you’re planning to give, it’s only your opinion you want to disseminate. One of my friends recently told me she felt my son’s name was waspy. Her comment wasn’t feedback as there was nothing I could do with the information. She simply gave me her judgmental opinion, which annoyed me.
Also, consider why you want to give feedback. Do you simply want something done your way, or do you feel strongly that what the person is doing is having a negative impact on him/her or the organization? I worked with a business leader who red-lined every document his staff created. He didn’t only change language that was wrong, he edited documents so they were written more akin to his writing style. This made his staff feel that they couldn’t do anything right and it wouldn’t matter what they produced, he’d revise even the most ‘perfect’ work. So they stopped trying. Evaluate your true motive. Just because something wasn’t done your way, doesn’t mean it wasn’t done well.
Provided your motives are pure – you’re trying to make a difference for someone and his/her behavior is causing real challenges, it’s ok to speak up. Be sure you have the relationship to give peer feedback. Does the person know you have his/her back? If you speak up, will s/he trust it’s because you care about her or the organization, versus you just want to express your opinion and be right.
Provided you are giving feedback to alter a behavior and you have the relationship to give feedback, it’s important that you ask for permission. A peer relationship is a lateral one. You each have the same ‘power’ (at least by title) in the organization, thus you don’t intrinsically have the ‘right’ to give feedback. You earn the right to give feedback by asking for permission and being willing to hear, “No, thank you.”
Asking for permission to give feedback might sound something like, “I’ve noticed a few things that I think are making ________ project harder than it has to be. Would you be willing to talk with me about it?”
Or, “Our weekly team meetings are tough. It’s a challenging group. I have a couple of ideas that might make the meetings easier to run. Would you be interested in talking about them?”
Or, “I have something I want to share with you. I feel awkward bringing this up because we’re peers and I’m not sure it’s my place to do so. But I care about you and want you to be successful. Would it be ok if I shared? Feel free, of course, to say no.”
Lastly, don’t worry about giving peer feedback perfectly. You might follow our feedback formula to a tee. You might not. There is no one right way to give feedback. Speak from the heart. If you’re nervous to have a conversation, say so. If you’re not sure it’s your place to give a piece of feedback, say so. If you’re worried you won’t deliver the feedback well, say that. Saying how you really feel, being human and vulnerable builds trust, relationships, and credibility. People want to work with other real people, and real people have concerns. It’s ok to share them.
Giving peer feedback doesn’t have to be hard. Evaluate your motives. Ensure that what you plan to share is really feedback versus merely your opinion. Build trust, ask for permission, and speak from the heart. If you make a mess, you can always clean it up. Simply repeat the steps by saying something like, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I hope it’s ok I said something. I really want this project to go well for both you and the team. How could I have done that better for next time?”
When I led leadership development training for a large mutual fund company we offered a lot of training focused on helping people have hard conversations. Over time I realized that despite that I’d bought and offered the best training programs I could find, the training wasn’t helping. Managers didn’t give enough feedback, and when they did give feedback, employees were often left confused, wondering what they needed to do differently.
I decided that what was missing was the conversation before the crucial conversation. It wasn’t that managers didn’t know what they wanted to say, but many managers felt they couldn’t say what they wanted to say. There wasn’t sufficient safety or permission for giving feedback, so managers said little or delivered messages that were so vague, employees were left wondering if there was a problem. This is when the idea for Candid Culture was born.
If you’re struggling with giving feedback, I doubt it’s the message that’s the challenge. The distinction between being able to tell the truth (as you see it) and saying nothing, is the quality of your relationship.
Think about the people – personal and professional – who can say anything to you. These are the people who can tell you that the person you’re dating is wrong for you, that a piece of clothing is not flattering, that you disappointed them, or that you dropped the ball. You may not enjoy getting the feedback, but you’re able to hear what they have to say and take it in because you know they care about you and have your best interests at heart. You trust their motives. When you trust people’s motives, they can say anything to you. When you don’t trust people’s motives, there is little they can say.
If you’re struggling to give feedback, evaluate your relationship by asking these three questions:
Does this person know that I have her back under any circumstances?
Does this person trust me?
Does this person know that I accept her just as she is?
If the answer to any of the questions above is no, it’s not giving feedback you’re struggling with, it’s the quality of your relationship. Work on building trust with this person and you’ll be able to say whatever you feel you need to say.
Here are five steps to building trusting relationships:
Get to know people better than you know them now. Get five free conversation-starting Candor Questions to have these conversations.
Tell people you want them to succeed and demonstrate that by being supportive of their efforts.
Don’t be judgy. No one likes to be told that she is wrong.
Set the expectation that you will give both positive and negative feedback when appropriate because you want the person to win. And if you remain silent, you are of no help to the other person.
When you deliver feedback, be extremely specific. Feedback that is specific will be received much better than vague feedback, which is typically judgmental.
When people know that you respect and want good things for them, you have a great deal of freedom to speak up. When people don’t trust your motives, giving feedback is almost impossible. The recipient will become defensive and dismiss whatever you say, rationalizing that you don’t like her and never have.
Worry less about giving feedback – for now. Instead, build trust. Get to know people better, then work on giving feedback.
If you’ve gotten courageous and given someone negative feedback or questioned a decision or action, you probably didn’t get a shiny, happy reply in return. The normal and natural reaction to negative feedback or data is to defend ourselves. It’s human. Defending yourself when receiving negative feedback is an act of self-preservation, not unlike hitting your brakes when the person driving in front of you unexpectedly slams on their brakes.
The problem with reacting defensively (normally) to negative feedback is that it’s scary and off-putting to others. As normal as a defensive reaction is to negative feedback, it makes others so uncomfortable that they’ll be hesitant to give you negative feedback again. And this lack of knowledge of what others really think is dangerous. Silence inhibits career growth and leads to bad business decisions. You want people to tell you the truth, as they see it. So you need to make it easy to speak freely.
If you want more of what others see as the truth, do the opposite of what people expect. Rather than defending or going silent, say “thank you.” “Thank you for telling me that. I’ll think about what you said and will likely come back to you to discuss further,” buys you time and puts the other person at ease.
Here are five ways to make it easier to say thank you for the feedback:
Only accept feedback when you’re ready to listen. You’re allowed to put people on ice and come back to them when you have time to talk. Bad days, when you have five minutes between meetings, or are about to leave for a vacation are not the times to accept negative information. Set up a time to talk, as soon as you have the bandwidth to listen.
Take breaks during hard conversations. You’re allowed to say, “I need a few minutes.” Go get coffee. Take a walk. Go outside. Regain your composure. Then continue the conversation.
Have feedback conversations when you’re rested and have eaten. Everything seems bigger and more difficult when we’re tired or hungry.
Accept that “thank you” isn’t the same as telling the other person she is right or that you agree. “Thank you” is a mere acknowledgment that you heard. It buys you time and gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and respond when you’re not emotional.
Don’t have conversations when you’re upset, and we often don’t know when we’re upset. Your emotions will run the show. Give yourself time to get through your emotional response, and then talk.
People are more hesitant than you think to tell you when they disagree. Make it easy to speak up. Do the opposite of what others expect. Say “thank you” rather than reacting, and you’ll get more data than you do now.
Several years ago, I was doing frequent training and consulting with a client and was in their offices weekly. One of their employees confided in me that she could see the train wreck coming on her team but wasn’t planning to say anything. She was going to watch the predicted mayhem happen without saying a word.
Why wasn’t she planning to speak up about the breakdowns she could see were coming? Did she care not care about her job or company? Was she not invested? The problem wasn’t any of those things. She simply didn’t believe that anyone wanted to hear what she had to say, the negative consequences for speaking up felt high, and quite simply, it was easier to say nothing.
When we were little our parents told us, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” As young professionals, when we did speak up and someone didn’t like what we had to say, we got ‘in trouble’. And no one wants to hurt people’s feelings, damage relationships, or get labeled as the person who complains. The odds are stacked against speaking candidly.
The problem is, when employees don’t speak up about concerns avoidable breakdowns happen, innovation is stifled, and dissatisfaction festers. We must find a way to speak up, even when we’re afraid or uncomfortable.
Many years ago, a fellow trainer said to me, “The truth is one ingredient in the recipe, it’s not the whole meal.” I can’t take credit for this bit of wisdom, but it stuck with me. You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, you can just say a little.
If you want to speak up at work but are hesitant, test the waters. Provide a little bit of information and see what happens. Was the person receptive? Did you face negative consequences? Were you treated unfairly? If the person handled your message well, give a little more information. See how that goes. Be judicious in how much input you provide. Remember, every time you give someone negative feedback, you may bruise their ego and every person and organization has its own pace for change.
Silence leads to stale ideas, employee turnover, and cultures where people don’t want to work. Speak up, just a little.