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 both inside and possibly outside our 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 a formal, online, anonymous survey to casual conversations. In this instance, I’m suggesting something I call The Core Team.
I suggest everyone has a Core Team of three to 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 dad. 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. A personal Core Team member can provide valid, professional feedback. 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 a week or a couple of weeks. Listening to and incorporating feedback is a process. It takes time, courage, and patience.
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; 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 how 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 the person you’re dating is wrong for you, that a piece of clothing is not flattering, 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 questions:
Does this person trust me?
Does this person know that I have their back under any circumstances?
If the answer to either of the questions 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 four steps to building trusting relationships:
Ask questions to get to know people better than you know them now.
Tell people you want them to succeed and demonstrate that by being supportive of their efforts.
Set the expectation that you will give both positive and upgrade feedback as events happen, because you want the person to be successful.
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 support 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 them.
Worry less about giving feedback – for now. Instead, build trust. Get to know people better, then work on giving feedback.
People leave feedback training armed with new skills and they unfortunately sometimes use those skills as a weapon. It goes something like this, “I need to have a candid conversation with you.” And then the person proceeds to dump, dump, dump. This couldn’t be more wrong, wrong, wrong.
When you give someone negative feedback you are essentially telling them they did something wrong. And who likes to be wrong? The ego gets bruised and people often start to question themselves. This normal reaction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback, you just need to do it judiciously.
Ask yourself these four questions when deciding whether or not to give someone feedback:
Do I have the relationship to provide feedback? Does the recipient trust me and my motives?
Do I have permission to give feedback? If the recipient doesn’t work for you, you need permission to give feedback.
Is this something the person can do something about? If it’s not a change the recipient can make, keep your thoughts to yourself.
Is the feedback helpful? Ultimately the purpose of all feedback is to be helpful.
Let’s say you’re on the receiving end of too much feedback. What should you do? It’s ok to say “no thank you” to feedback. Here’s what you could say:
“Thank you for taking the time to bring this to my attention. I really appreciate it. You’ve given me a lot of feedback today. I’d like something to focus on that I can impact right now. What’s the most important thing I should do?” You’ve validated the other person and demonstrated openness and interest. You’ve also set some boundaries and expectations of what you will and won’t do.
“Thank you for taking the time to share your requests about… We won’t be making any changes to that and here’s why.” It’s ok not to act on all feedback, simply tell people why you won’t.
“I appreciate your concern. I’m not looking for feedback on that right now.” Can you say that to someone? Yes. Should you? Sometimes. To your boss – no. To someone who offers unsolicited advice that’s outside of their lane, yes. They’ll get the message.
People can only act on and digest small amounts of feedback at a time. Be judicious and assess your motives. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful, when the feedback is requested and when you have the relationship to give it.
If you receive too much feedback or unsolicited feedback, it’s ok to decline. You’re not the 7-11, aka you’re not always open.
When you use GPS in your car for driving directions, the GPS only provides one direction at a time. GPS tells you what to do now and what to do next. Your car can only go one direction at a time. And humans can likely only remember one or two directions at a time. When you coach people, you are their GPS, supporting them in achieving a desired goal efficiently.
Coach and give feedback like your GPS. Give one or two pieces of feedback at a time. Then give the person time to make changes and improve before giving more feedback.
What I hear every day, and every day it makes me shudder:
Manager: “One of my employees has been making a lot of mistakes. He seems disengaged (p.s. “disengaged” is Cap’n Crunch, vague and thus not real feedback). I’m not sure what’s happening.”
Most people hoard feedback. We wait for the right time, aka when we’re comfortable. That time will never come. The right time to give feedback is when something happens or shortly thereafter. Practice the 24-hour guideline and the one-week rule. Wait 24 hours to give feedback if you’re mad, but not longer than a week. Give feedback when you’re not upset, but soon after the event occurs, so people remember what you’re talking about.
Feedback is hard on the ego. The more feedback we receive in one conversation, the harder it is to hear. People need to feel successful. Receiving too much feedback at one time makes us feel we can’t be successful, so why bother. Pick the biggest and most impactful behaviors. Wait. And then give more feedback.
When it comes to feedback, keep this mantra in your head – recency, frequency. Recency, frequency. Short, weekly, feedback conversations – five minutes long – are better than sixty-minute feedback conversation once a month or quarter. You’ll see more behavior change and protect team member’s ego. Shorter and more frequent is better.
I’m not sure why, I wish I could give you a good reason, but the vague phrases above are what come out of people’s mouth’s first when giving feedback. To prevent giving fake feedback, you have to prepare.
There is a reason you think the person is awesome or has a bad attitude. What did they do that created that impression? Until you can describe what the person did to create an impression, you’re not ready to give feedback. You’re better off saying nothing.
All of the phrases above are opinions with no facts. Opinions are judgments. Feeling judged makes people defensive. When people are defensive, it’s hard to listen.
The purpose of feedback is to help another person. Give the person enough information that they know what to replicate and what to change. Before you give feedback, write down three things the person did that created your impression. If you can’t give an example, wait to have the conversation until you can. It’s better to say nothing than to say something vague and unhelpful.
Vague positive feedback sounds inauthentic. Vague negative feedback is judgmental. Neither strengthens your relationship or are helpful.
If you really want to be heard and you want to be helpful, provide an example. No example, no feedback.
Many people worry about giving feedback because they’re concerned, they don’t have the ‘right’ words. They’re concerned they’ll say ‘it’ wrong and damage their relationships.
Feedback is hard enough to give without worrying about saying everything perfectly. Worry less about having all the right words and more about whether or not people trust your motives.
When people trust your motives – why you’re giving feedback – you can say almost anything. When they don’t trust your motives, you can say almost nothing.
Getting negative feedback is hard. It’s easier to listen to feedback when we trust the person who’s giving us the feedback – we know their intentions are to help versus to judge or hurt us.
Speak from the heart, be authentic, and worry less. Be yourself. If you’re nervous to say what you want to say, tell the other person you’re nervous. If you’re struggling to find the right words, say so. If you’re worried you’ll damage the relationship or that it isn’t your role to give the feedback, say that. Authenticity goes a long way.
Hear are some examples of how to start a feedback conversation:
How to give feedback phrase one: Consider saying, “There’s something I need to talk with you about, but I’m concerned that I won’t use the right words and will damage our relationship.”
How to give feedback phrase two: “There’s something I want to talk with you about, but I’m concerned how it will come across. Is it ok if I say what I need to say?”
How to give feedback phrase three: “I want to give you my thoughts on something, but I’m concerned that it’s not my place to do so. Is it ok if I share my ideas about _________?”
Other people aren’t expecting you to be perfect. But they do want to know they’re working with a human being. And human beings are fallible. We have fears. We make mistakes. And sometimes we don’t say things perfectly.
You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be real.
Last week one of my friends was concerned about something happening at her son’s school. She wrote out what she planned to say to the school principal and sent it to me to read. Her letter was long, with lots of unnecessary details. I read five paragraphs before understanding what the situation was even about. I revised her letter. My version was three sentences and easy to write. Why? Because it’s not my child and not my situation.
One of the things that makes giving feedback and making requests particularly difficult, is our emotional involvement. We’re invested in the outcome. The stakes feel high. And that emotion makes everything harder.
If you’re struggling with a message you need to deliver, get some help. The person who helps you craft a succinct, specific, and unemotional message doesn’t have to be a feedback expert or a manager. The person just can’t be involved. As long as the person isn’t emotionally involved, they’ll be helpful.
When you ask for help, don’t ask for advice. Instead of asking a friend or colleague, “What would you do in this situation,” ask, “What would you say?” These are very different questions. You want the specific words to resolve whatever you’re struggling with.
Asking someone for help planning a challenging conversation or message begs the question, isn’t asking for that type of help a form of gossip? It could be. So be careful who you ask.
When asking for help planning a message or conversation, ask someone in your organization who is at your same level or above (title-wise) or ask someone outside of the organization. Change the names of the people involved; protect people’s anonymity. And be clear if you are asking for help to plan a conversation or if you are venting. They are not the same.
The most effective feedback and requests are unemotional, factual, and succinct. Sometimes we need other people who are not involved to help us get there.
Most of us wait too long to give feedback. We worry, the conversation will take too long. The recipient will get upset and not want to work with us. Or we’ll get in trouble for giving feedback. So, we wait for the right moment, or performance appraisals, when the conversation becomes unavoidable.
Those of you who have had feedback training with me know you can deliver effective feedback in two minutes. Some of you have practiced giving feedback in 40 seconds.
We all know that exercising for 30-minutes a day is better than exercising once a week for two hours. Recency and frequency works with exercise and feedback. Shorter is better. Rather than waiting for the right time to give feedback, which will never come, create a structure to make feedback quicker, more timely, and as a result, easier.
Feedback is like your car’s GPS; it’s designed to help people achieve goals efficiently. If your GPS waited six weeks or six months to give you feedback, where would you and your car be? Peru?
Next year, do it differently. Create a structure now for 2023. Agree to give feedback weekly for five or ten minutes. Talk about what worked and what didn’t work in the past week. If you can discipline yourself to spend five minutes giving feedback as work is completed, feedback conversation will be more useful, less painful, and easier.
It’s not unusual to wait too long to give feedback. Giving feedback often feels awkward and uncomfortable. What happens if the person cries, or gives us the cold shoulder, or worse, quits?
Working virtually over the past few years has exacerbated the waiting. Many managers who were accustomed to giving feedback in person hesitated to have hard conversations over the phone or via video.
Perhaps you waited so long to give feedback, you feel like you can’t.
It’s never too late. You just need to set the expectation that you’re going to give feedback and why.
One of the keys to being (more) comfortable giving feedback is to know that most people genuinely want to know how they’re doing. Working in the dark is frustrating. Not knowing the behaviors that impact us and our opportunities is also frustrating. Working on a project for months only to find out the work we did wasn’t what the other person wanted is ultimately frustrating.
Most people genuinely want feedback. They may struggle to hear feedback, they may get defensive, they may not take responsibility, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to know.
If you want to give feedback but feel like you waited too long, say so. The conversation could sound like this:
Manager to direct report: “I realized that I haven’t been giving you enough feedback. I’d like to start doing a semi-monthly debrief, not because anything is wrong or has changed. I want you to learn and grow as a result of working with me, and you won’t if I’m not providing regular feedback”
Peer to peer: “I need to talk with you about something and I’ve realized that I’ve waited too long. As a result, I’m feeling awkward and hesitant. Is it ok if I speak freely?”
Talking with someone more senior than yourself: “I want to talk with you about something I’ve been seeing for a while. I should have said something sooner. I’m sorry I didn’t. Can I talk with you about it now?”
It’s ok if you waited too long. It’s ok not to say things perfectly. Authenticity goes a long way. Be real. If you’re nervous, say so. If you’re wondering if it’s ok to speak up, say so. If you waited too long, say so. Relationships are built on trust, and authenticity builds trust. The time to start is now.
Many businesses are struggling to overcome negative and permanent online reviews on yelp, trip advisor, Glassdoor, etc. And they’re wondering why customers and employees go online vs. giving feedback directly. The answer is simple.
Giving feedback online is easy. Giving feedback directly is harder, for many reasons. No one wants to be the person who complains. Feedback is likely to be received with a defensive at worst and explanatory at best response, and who really wants to deal with that? And we fear we’ll get “in trouble” for giving feedback, etc. etc. etc. I could go on and on.
If you want your customers and employees to give you feedback directly instead of blasting you online when they’re unhappy, make it easy to give you feedback, regularly.
Here are four ways to help prevent negative online reviews and improve the data you get from customers and employees:
Ask customers and employees for feedback regularly. Don’t wait until the end of the year or after a service has been provided to ask for feedback. Ask for feedback during the customer’s experience. Ask employees for feedback every 90-days. Marriott hotels is masterful at this. Hotel guests don’t get onto the hotel’s free Wi-Fi until answering one question about their hotel stay. If guest feedback has a negative component, a manager will call you immediately. Such smart business.
If you’re going to send online surveys, keep them short. Never ask a customer more than five questions, and two is better. Ask a version of, “What are you appreciating about your experience? What could we change on your behalf?” What else do you need to know? Too many businesses send exhaustive and exhausting surveys to customers after a service has been provided. It’s unrealistic to expect customers to complete 30+ survey questions. Keep it short. You’ll see better response rates.
Call 10% (or fewer if you have thousands of employees and customers) and ask for feedback. It’s such a rare occurrence to receive a phone call asking for feedback, it’s an immediate loyalty and relationship builder.
Don’t request a positive score on a survey. Sending a survey and asking for a certain response type is a turnoff. Uber drivers who ask me to rate them a five never get that rating. The best way to get an awesome rating is to be awesome.
Ask for feedback early and often, and make it easy to give. P.S. And no anonymous surveys – a topic for another day.