No one likes to make mistakes. We want to do good work and have people think well of us.
The key to maintaining your relationships and reputation, when you make a mistake, is to take responsibility and make things right as soon as possible. Saying something wasn’t your fault or becoming defensive will only damage your reputation and relationships. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you will gain respect and credibility by admitting fault and correcting problems.
I often get asked if people lose credibility by being humble – asking for feedback and admitting to making mistakes. It takes strength to ask for and be open to feedback and to admit when you drop the ball. So while it may seem counterintuitive, the more you ask for and respond to feedback, and admit when you make mistakes, the stronger you will appear.
I made a mistake at work. Now what?
When you make a mistake say something like:
“I dropped the ball on that. I apologize. I’ll fix it and let you know when it’s been handled.”
Or, “Thank you for the feedback. This clearly didn’t go as planned. I’ll make those changes and let you know when they’re done.”
Also, let people know the steps you’ll take to avoid similar challenges in the future.
You could say something like:
“Thanks for letting me know that our process is causing your department challenges. We certainly want the process to be smooth. My team will fix this month’s report, so your team doesn’t have to invest more time. We’ll update the process for next month and walk you through the changes before the report is due.”
Don’t provide a bunch of reasons for breakdowns. No one cares. Telling people why something occurred can sound like excuse management. People just want to know things will be made right.
Asking for feedback, taking responsibility, and telling people how you will correct errors may not be your natural or first reaction. The more you can train yourself to do these things, the easier you will be to work with and the better your reputation and business relationships will be.
The people you work with want to do a good job. They want you to think well of them. Yes, even the people you think do little work. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume people are doing the best they know how to do. And when you don’t get what you want, make requests.
Version one: “You did this thing and here’s why it’s a problem.”
The other way is less direct. Rather than telling the person what went wrong, simply make a request.
Version two: “Will you…” Or, “It would be helpful to get this report on Mondays instead of Wednesday. Are you able to do that?”
It’s very difficult to give feedback directly without the other person feeling judged. Making a request is much more neutral than giving direct feedback, doesn’t evoke as much defensiveness, and achieves the same result. You still get what you want.
When I teach giving feedback, I often give the example of asking a waitstaff in a restaurant for ketchup. Let’s say your waiter comes to your table to ask how your food is and your table doesn’t have any ketchup.
Option one: Give direct feedback. “Our table doesn’t have any ketchup.”
Option two: Make a request. “Can we get some ketchup?”
Both methods achieve the desired result. Option one overtly tells the waiter, “You’re not doing your job.” Option two still tells the waiter he isn’t doing his job, but the method is more subtle and thus is less likely to put him on the defensive.
You are always dealing with people’s egos. And when egos get bruised, defenses rise. When defenses rise, it’s hard to have a productive conversation. People stop listening and start defending themselves. Defending oneself is a normal and natural reaction to negative feedback. It’s a survival instinct.
You’re more likely to get what you want from others when they don’t feel attacked and don’t feel the need to defend themselves. Consider simply asking for what you want rather than telling people what they’re doing wrong, and see what happens.
I will admit, asking for what you want in a neutral and non-judgmental way when you’re frustrated is very hard to do. The antidote is to anticipate your needs and ask for what you want at the onset of anything new. And when things go awry, wait until you’re not upset to make a request. If you are critical, apologize and promise to do better next time. It’s all trial and error.
You will be passed over for jobs, projects, and opportunities – personally and professionally. People will choose not to buy from you and they’ll choose not to be your friend and romantic partner. And that’s ok. Not everyone is our right “customer.” The key isn’t to win every opportunity. Rather, it’s what we do when we don’t get what we want.
When you’re done feeling disappointed, mad, and frustrated, get curious. Find out why you were passed over. I’ll never suggest you make changes. I simply want you to know what’s standing in your way, so you have power – the power to choose. Eliminate your business blind spots.
All of us have blind spots – things we do that are off-putting to others, that we’re not aware of. For the most part, people won’t tell us our business blind spots, instead, they simply pass us over. Being rejected is feedback, it’s just not specific enough to help us make different choices. If you want to be able to change your behavior, you need to know what behaviors are standing in your way. Then you can choose what, if anything, to do about those behaviors.
When you get turned down for an opportunity, practice these strategies to eliminate your business blind spots:
Allow yourself to have an emotional reaction, to feel disappointed, and to grieve the loss.
When your emotions dissipate, call people who can tell you why you were turned down, and ask for feedback. The goal of the conversation: Eliminate your business blind spots.
Be humble and open.
Consider saying something like, “Thank you so much for considering me/us to support your needs. We were disappointed not to win your business. Would you be willing to share what had you choose a different provider and what we could have done differently to be a stronger candidate? I’ll be grateful for anything you’re willing to tell me.”
Depending on the circumstances, you could also say something like, “I wasn’t put on the _______ project. I wonder if you have any information as to why? I appreciate anything you’re able to tell me. Your input will help me grow and eliminate my business blind spots.”
Regardless of what you hear, thank the person for the feedback. You can ask for additional information and ask who else you can talk with, but don’t become defensive. The less defensive you get, the more feedback you’ll get. Make it easy to tell you the truth (as the other person sees it).
Remember, information is power, and power is control. Many people don’t give direct feedback because they’re afraid of the other person’s reaction. Surprise people by being open to feedback, and eliminate your business blind spots.
Validate feedback that doesn’t feel right to you. If you’re not sure what someone told you is accurate, vet the feedback with other people you trust. Simply ask other people who are aware of your performance, “I received this feedback. Does that resonate with you?”
Sit with the feedback for a few days before taking any action.
When your emotions have passed, decide what – if anything – you want to do with the input you’ve received. Perhaps you want to make changes. Perhaps you don’t. Either way, you have more power than you did before you received any input.
You won’t win them all. The key isn’t avoiding rejection, it’s what you do when you don’t get what you want. Be brave. Be open. Ask for feedback. And you’ll have the power to make different choices next time, if you want to.
The people you live and work with are hesitant to give you negative feedback. They’re afraid you’ll freak out, and they don’t want to deal your freak out. It’s easier to say nothing.
When I started teaching how to give and receive feedback, I provided elaborate explanations as to the predictable response to feedback and the rationale for that response. Now I’ve boiled the natural response to receiving feedback into three words: The Freak Out.
Every person you know – personally and professionally – wants to be liked and approved of. Even the people in your office who you think are lazy want you to think they do good work. And when anyone calls another person’s competence into question, that person is likely to freak out (become defensive).
It’s very difficult not to get at least a little bit defensive when receiving feedback. A defensive response often sounds something like, “Thanks for the telling me that. Can I tell you why I did it that way?” The problem with that slightly defensive response is that what the other person hears is, “You’re not listening. I am wasting my time talking to you.” Then the conversation quickly ends. People want to feel heard. And when the feedback recipient becomes defensive, the person giving feedback doesn’t feel heard.
Don’t feel badly about becoming defensive when you receive negative feedback. Becoming defensive when receiving bad news just means you’re a living, breathing human being with feelings. That beats the alternative. But The Freak Out scares people. They don’t want to deal with your mild, moderate, or very defensive reactions.
Because people want to avoid The Freak Out, they keep negative feedback to themselves, or worse, tell someone else. If you want more truth, you need to make it clear there won’t be negative repercussions for speaking up.
Here are seven steps to get others comfortable giving you negative feedback:
1. Ask for feedback.
2. Be specific about the type of feedback you want.
3. Tell the person from whom you’re asking for feedback when and where she can observe you in action.
A bad example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback. Feel free to give it anytime.” This is too vague and doesn’t demonstrate seriousness on your part.
A good example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback on the pace of the new-hire-orientation program. Will you sit through the first hour next Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. and tell me what you think of the pace and why?” This request tells the person specifically what you want and demonstrates you’re serious about wanting her feedback.
4. When you receive feedback, say, “Thank you for telling me. I’m going to think about what you’ve said and may come back to you in a few days to talk more.”
5. Don’t respond to negative feedback immediately. Walk away instead of responding.
6. If you’d like more information or want to tell the person you disagree with what she said, wait until you’re calm to have that conversation. That can be minutes or a few days later.
7. You can express a counterpoint of view, you just can’t do it immediately after you receive the feedback.
No matter what a person’s role in your life – your boss, a peer, external customer, or even spouse – it takes courage to give you feedback. When a conversation requires courage, the speaker’s emotions are heightened. If the feedback recipient’s emotions rise in response to the feedback, conversations escalate. This is how arguments start. If you want to put the other person at ease and get more feedback in the future, do the opposite of what she is expecting. Rather than getting even the slightest bit defensive, do the opposite. Say, “Thank you for the feedback. I’m sorry you had that experience. I’m going to think about what you’ve said, and may come back to you to talk more.” Then walk away.
Walking away, when all you want to do is react, is very difficult. Walking away will require a good deal of self-control, but the rewards are great. You will build trust, strengthen your relationships, and get more information than you have in the past – information you need to manage your career, reputation, and business.
It’s hard to watch people do things that damage them – personally or professionally. And yet, if they haven’t asked for feedback, people likely won’t listen to unsolicited advice, so don’t bother giving it.
If you really want to give unsolicited advice, ask for permission and make sure you get a true “yes” before speaking up.
The conversation could go something like this:
“I noticed we’re getting behind on the XYZ project. I have a couple of ideas about what we can do. Would you be interested in talking about them?” Or, “That Monday meeting is rough. I feel for you. I used to run meetings like that. Would you be interested in talking about some meeting management strategies? I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.”
After you offer to talk (aka, give your opinion), listen and watch the response you get. Do the person’s words and body language portray a true “yes, I’d like your opinion” or what seems like an “I know I’m supposed to say yes, but I’m really not interested” reply? If you get the latter, you’re likely just giving unwanted advice that won’t be heard. If that’s the case, let it go. But if the person appears generally interested and open, proceed.
You could also say something like:
“Last week we were talking about your frustrations about not being promoted. I have a couple of ideas about that. Do you want to talk about them? Either way is fine, but I thought I’d offer.”
Or, “That was a tough conversation during today’s staff meeting. It’s hard to present ideas and not have them be embraced. I have a couple of thoughts about ways you can approach the conversation during the next meeting. Do you want to talk about them?”
If you extend the invitation to talk, the other person has to be able to say no. An invitation is only an invitation if “no” is an acceptable answer. You can’t ask if the person wants your input and then keep talking if he verbally or physically said no.
Be brave. If you care about someone personally or professionally and you see him doing something that gets in the way of his success, ask permission to say something. If you get the go ahead, proceed. If you get a “no thank you,” accept that and move on. You’ve done your part.
Last week some unknown person sent me emails predicting my future. According to the anonymous clairvoyant, in ten years my life will be going well. I’ll have a second child who is amazingly athletic, and I will be offered a job in Oshkosh that I shouldn’t take. After the third predictive email, the sender wanted to know if I had questions about my future. I didn’t.
The whole thing was wildly creepy.
No one should take advice from someone with this much discretionary time. The emailer needs a volunteer job.
Why would I want someone else to tell me my future? That’s something I enjoy creating.
I see myself as 100% responsible for everything that happens to me. As antithetical as it sounds, life is easier when I’m accountable. If I miss a plane because of traffic, I should have left for the airport earlier. If I get overcharged in a restaurant, I should have checked the bill more carefully. If I do a bunch of work for a client and later find out that the work I did isn’t what the client really wanted, I should have asked more questions upfront and asked for feedback earlier.
When I’m responsible for what happens to me, I have some control. When someone else is responsible, I have no control.
Instead of seeking answers about what might happen, pursue the things you want. If you want a different job in your organization, tell someone who can do something about it. If you got passed over for a job, ask the hiring manager for feedback of what would have made you a better candidate. If the hiring manager doesn’t give you any information, ask your current boss to get the information for you. If one of your co-workers excludes you from projects, ask him why. If someone you work with seems to dislike you, ask for feedback about what you did to damage the relationship. Regardless of how challenging the situation and how disappointing the results, there is ALWAYS something you did to either contribute to the situation or something you can do to change the situation.
I don’t mean to tell you what to do. Nor do I mean to minimize how hard some life circumstances are. But I do want you to see yourself as in charge of what happens to you.
Create the life you want by:
Asking, “What do I really want, and what’s one thing I can do right now to get closer to that goal?” Then take one step. Then take one more, and so on.
If negative things are happening, ask, “What could I have done differently to have a different outcome?” Or, ask, “If I could do this over again, what would I do differently?” Then next time, do it differently.
Regardless of how hard or bad something is, there is ALWAYS something you can do to make the situation better. Take your life, your career, and your relationships into your own hands where they belong.
When the people we work with don’t do their jobs, we might find ourselves saying, “He should be more on top of things.” “She shouldn’t make commitments she can’t keep.” “He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that’s not my problem.” The challenge is, when your coworkers don’t perform, it is your problem.
When your coworkers don’t get you the information you need in a timely way, you miss deadlines. When you work from incorrect information, your reports are wrong. When others don’t work with you, you look bad. So you can be right all day about how others perform, and your reputation will still be negatively impacted.
I don’t suggest you enable your coworkers by doing the work others don’t. I do suggest you help your coworkers be successful by holding them accountable.
Here are a few things you can do to manage your career and get what you need from your business relationships:
Don’t assume others will meet deadlines. Check in periodically and ask, “What’s been done so far with the XYZ project?” Notice, I didn’t suggest asking, “How are things going with the XYZ project.” “How are things going” is a greeting, not a question.
Set iterative deadlines. If May 20th is your drop-dead deadline, ask to see pieces of work incrementally. “Can I see the results of the survey on May 5th, the write-up on May 10th, and the draft report on May 15th?” One of the biggest mistakes managers and project managers make is not practicing good delegation by setting iterative deadlines and reviewing work as it’s completed.
Don’t just email and ask for updates. The people you work with are overwhelmed with email, and email is too passive. Visit people’s offices or pick up the phone.
You might be thinking, “Holding my coworkers accountable is awkward. I don’t have the formal authority, and I don’t want my coworkers to think I’m bossy or damage my business relationships.”
It’s all in the how you make requests.
If you’ve seen me speak or have read the business book How to Say Anything to Anyone, you know I believe in setting clear expectations at the beginning of anything new. That could sound something like, “I’m looking forward to working with you on the XYZ project. How would you feel if we set iterative deadlines, so we can discuss work as it is completed? You’ll get just-in-time input, making any necessary adjustments as we go, and we’ll stay ahead of schedule. How does that sound? How are the 5th, 10th, and 15th as mini deadlines for you?”
Many people put large projects off until the last minute. People procrastinate less when large projects are broken into smaller chunks with correlating deadlines. You strengthen your business relationships and support people in meeting deadlines and not procrastinating when you agree on completion dates when projects begin. Also, most of us unfortunately know what it’s like to put a lot of work into a project, have someone review our completed work, and then be told we went down the wrong path and need to start over.
Ask more. Assume less. Don’t assume your coworkers will do what they’re supposed to do. Ask upfront to see pieces of work on agreed-upon dates. Pick up the phone versus rely on email to communicate, and know that the people you work closely with are a reflection of you. Get people working with you, and everyone will look good.
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.
Who have you fired lately? The person who cuts your hair or lawn? A doctor, accountant, or restaurant where you had a bad experience? Did you call any of those providers and tell them why you were replacing them? My hunch is no. There’s little incentive to do so. Why risk their defensiveness? It’s easier to just replace them. And the same is true for you.
There’s little incentive for the people you work with to tell you when you frustrate them. The perceived cost seems too high. The people you work (and live) with have experienced others’ defensive responses to negative feedback (which is no fun) and they don’t want to experience your reaction. As a result, when you disappoint or frustrate others, it’s easier to say nothing than tell you the truth.
The tendency for others to tell you things are fine when they’re not will prevent you from managing your career and relationships. People will go missing and/or you’ll be passed over for professional opportunities and never know why.
To make it more likely that people will tell you when you disappoint or frustrate them, make it easy to tell you the truth.
Here are seven practices for receiving feedback:
Receiving Feedback Practice #1: When you begin new relationships, tell people you want their feedback.
Receiving Feedback Practice #2: Promise that no matter what people say, you’ll respond with “thank you.” This is very hard to do.
Receiving Feedback Practice #3: Tell people you already have relationships with that if you haven’t said it in the past, you really want their feedback and promise to respond graciously with “thank you.”
Receiving Feedback Practice #4: Ask people who matter to you for feedback regularly.
Receiving Feedback Practice #5: Resist the urge to get defensive.
Receiving Feedback Practice #6: Catch yourself when you start to become defensive and apologize. Say something like, “I’m getting defensive. I’m sorry. Tell me again. I’ll do a better job of listening.”
Receiving Feedback Practice #7: Take a break from conversations during which you find yourself responding defensively. Say something like, “I’m not responding as well as I’d like. How about we take a break? Give me a few minutes (hours or days) and I’ll come back to you to talk more. I really want to hear what you have to say.”
The aforementioned list provides recommendations for asking for and receiving feedback you want, not feedback you don’t. You are not a dumping ground. Don’t ask for feedback you don’t want. And when you do ask for feedback, qualify what type of feedback you’re looking for. Telling people “I want your feedback” doesn’t mean they’re welcome to say whatever they want.
The purpose of asking for feedback and making it safe to tell the truth is to give you more control over your career and relationships. It’s ok to be passed over for opportunities and relationships, but it’s unhelpful not to know why.
Several years ago I hired a vendor that wasn’t a good fit. Try as we might to work together, we didn’t communicate well. Everything was a struggle. After a frustrating few weeks, the owner of the business offered to refund my money and amicably part ways. His company had already done work on our behalf and I didn’t want to lose momentum. I turned him down. That was a mistake. When a small business owner, who needs your business (money), tells you to go elsewhere, listen. We parted ways a few months later in a much more costly and less amicable way.
You don’t want to work with people who don’t want to work with you. The same is true for friends and romantic relationships. Don’t chase people. If they don’t want you, move on. There are lots of other people who will see your value.
There are differing schools of thought on whether or not you should try to retain unhappy employees who quit. I’d be interested in seeing statistics on how long employees who quit but are then retained, stay with an organization and how well they perform. I’d let them go. Again, you don’t want people who don’t want you.
The challenge is that most people are afraid to speak up in organizations and relationships (of all kinds) when they’re unhappy. Unhappy employees typically quit versus make requests and give feedback.
The antidote is to create a culture in which employees, vendors, and customers openly make requests and talk about what is and isn’t working. Create a climate of candor in which feedback is exchanged regularly versus just during exit interviews, which is too late.
How to know when to cut bait with unhappy employees and vendors:
You’ve had several open discussions and can’t meet each others’ needs. If you don’t have a job the employee wants, that’s a good reason to part ways.
It’s not a good culture fit. You talk and talk but don’t communicate. Issues don’t get resolved. Frustration is the norm. This is also a good reason to end a working (or personal) relationship.
Five steps to create a more candid culture:
Discuss employees’, customers’, and vendors’ needs and requests at the beginning of working relationships. Agree upon what success and a good job looks like. Ask lots and lots of questions, and listen closely to the answers.
Ask for feedback regularly. Conduct a weekly plus/delta (a discussion of what is and isn’t working) during which all parties are invited and expected to speak freely. The more you have these discussions, the easier they will be and the more candid people will become.
Address challenges as they come up.
Discuss challenges that can’t be fixed.
If a relationship isn’t working, end it sooner rather than later. Be slow to hire and quick to fire.
There are lots of talented vendors and employees. Find employees and suppliers who are easy to work with (for you) and who can meet your needs, and vice versa. If you can’t meet each others’ needs or the relationship is a constant struggle, those are good reasons to move on. Don’t chase.