The Unrivaled Leader : Part 8 – Hearing (and acting upon) Negative Feedback is Part of the Job

Ooof, it’s hard to take feedback, isn’t it?  As a lay person, you might be subject to negative constructive feedback from your boss.   You should, in my opinion, seek that sort of feedback.  All ☀️ sunshine☀️   and 🍭  lollipops 🍭 comments feel good, but aren’t that useful. Constructive feedback from your boss,, assuming it’s legitimate,  provides specific information that you can act upon to improve your productivity.

But often that attitude changes when you become a manager.  For some, being given a management position appears to endorse an inner feeling of superiority.  “Hey, I’m something special and I must be doing all things perfectly for me to be given this position!”  For others, they may have not developed the skill of properly managing upward feedback.  In either case, not seeking and not being receptive to subordinate feedback can be career limiting.

(Note: I say “can” because there are plenty who have made a very successful career by only “managing up” and not caring much what their subordinates think.  But for this article, let’s assume you want to be a servant leader)

Let me make this clear, you desperately need feedback from your staff.  Without it, you’re plodding along, unaware that trouble is brewing and that often means it will rear up at the worst possible time, such as during a full staff meeting, when one of your staff members asks publicly about something you were unaware or unreceptive about.  (another note: in such a situation, your boss should know better than to endorse such feedback publicly and instead just receive it and promise to look into it).

Here are some basic thoughts about feedback you receive:

A)  Is it Legitimate?

The most challenging part of hearing feedback is whether it is legitimate.  You have to consider whether it represents something that could be possibly true.   In nearly all cases, I think you’ll find that such feedback will have at least a shred of truth linked to it.  A small percentage will be feedback that is based on improper perception or a misunderstanding, but one could argue that this still makes it legitimate.  The perception of issues is as strong as the existence.  So you treat all feedback initially as being true.

B) How You Should Comport Yourself When Receiving It

Here’s a good guideline: pretend your staff person is you, and you are presenting this feedback to your boss.  How would you want your boss to treat you.  This is a good yardstick for many things you will say and do as a manager of people.  Treat yourself as the third person and consider what you would prefer.

In general, listen.  Receive the feedback.  Take notes.  Be receptive.  Repeat what you are hearing to make sure you understand.  These are basic listening techniques.

A couple of general rules:

  • Find a private place to receive the feedback.  You want the provider to feel comfortable speaking freely and you may not want others to eavesdrop.
  • If the feedback is about something dangerous (“Janie’s got a gun!”) or something unethical (“Bill stole a computer”) or a violation of HR policies (“Jordan had porn up on his laptop”) you need to act upon this information right away – which often means contacting security or human resources.
  • You don’t have to offer immediate feedback, whether acceptance or repudiation.  You should use good judgement in this case, but I’ve found that taking the feedback, giving yourself time to think and explore the information you received, and then scheduling a followup is usually the better tact.  Blurting out “that’s not true!” or “the hell you say!” is not appropriate usually.
  • You may be receiving confidential or private information.  Don’t blab to others about what you’ve heard.
  • If the feedback is about you, before you reject it, ask yourself if there’s any chance it is true (whether in reality or by perception).  Nearly in all cases you should be able to find the possibility that the feedback is reasonably valid.  And in general, you should again just listen and take notes rather than argue.

Bottom line is that if you wish to keep receiving feedback from your staff, you have to create an environment that is professional and receptive, even if you find out some of the feedback is not legitimate.   Blasting back at a staff member providing input will inevitably be shared with others in your group and presto, you now have a reputation.

C) Closure

In some cases, you may not be able to provide closure.  It maybe that it’s information that requires follow-up or a timeline to receive additional feedback before you can determine legitimacy.  Let the person know whether you expect to be able to address their feedback in a short time or that it will take longer.

In many cases, beyond a verbal closure you’ll want to provide an email/written closure – especially for serious circumstances. This both provides the individual with well written (hopefully!) feedback and provides you a paper trail should this discussion take an awkward turn.

D) Formal versus Informal

You’ll want to have both formal and informal communication paths for feedback from your staff.

Formal

  • Setup periodic staff meetings that have a good chunk of the meeting related to receiving feedback or Q&A.  You don’t want it to become mob rule, but having a place where people can comfortably provide feedback is useful.
  • Setup meetings with groups of your staff in a casual place to get specific feedback.  Mix and match the group so that you have people from various disciplines and with various personalities.  Don’t pull together a group of all introverts, or all extroverts.  I called mine “Fireside Chats with Bill” – though we didn’t actually have a fireplace in our cafe.
  • Setup a Comments Box where staff can write anonymous feedback and place it in this box – and remember to check it (!)
  • Perform a periodic “climate survey” where you ask questions that can be used to determine staff sentiment.

Informal

  • Sometimes you can rely on your Administrative Assistant to be your “ears on the ground” and alert you to brewing trouble.  It takes an Assistant who is close to staff and isn’t perceived as a shill.
  • Use peers you have in other departments to listen for scuttlebutt.  Return the favor, of course.

E) Destructive Feedback

There are going to be times, hopefully very infrequently, where you’ll hear feedback from someone simply trying to be destructive to the department, a project, a team member or you.  This is the most difficult feedback to manage appropriately for two reasons: 1) it’s very hard to listen patiently to severely stilted, personal and negative feedback, 2) you may not be able to address this person’s concerns or make them stop providing inappropriate feedback.

Part of this can be managed by making sure the hiring process weeds out such staff people.  In a future article I will discuss my “no jackasses” policy related to hiring the right kinds of staff people.

Assuming this person made it through your “no jackasses” policy (or was inherited), you may not be able to assuage this person’s concerns.  If this person is unable to accept that their feedback is either not actionable or illegitimate, and/or this person attempts subversive behavior, you may need to work through your Human Resources department to correct this behavior or ultimately release this resource.

If the person shouts or loses their temper, you have to quickly decide whether you cut that session short or whether you make an attempt at calming the person down.  In these days, you also have to be aware whether violence upon you is impending.  In such cases, it’s best to capitulate in order to defuse the situation, and then head on down to HR (or Security) for assistance.  Obviously, do not get into an altercation with your staff member, whether physical or verbal.

F) Feedback That Cannot Be Acted Upon

You may receive feedback that you cannot act upon or resolve.  It may be general feedback that would require much more senior authority than you to address.  It may be feedback that is legitimate but cannot be resolved due to workplace policies.  It may be feedback about you that, to address, would force you to deviate from what you believe is the right behavior or policy.

In any of these cases, and others, you should be able to document the feedback and let the person know that you cannot (or are prohibited from) addressing the request.  You have to count on this person to be reasonable and empathetic (reminder, “no jackasses”).

If you’re a person that never accepts feedback, then it will be very difficult to appear that you want it.

If you receive suggestions that need to be mitigated at a higher level than you, do follow-up with your senior management if the suggestions are appropriate.  Let the requester know the progress.

G) Public Dissemination of Feedback

There may be some suggestions or feedback that you receive that you should or could share publicly with your staff.  This could be during a staff meeting or via email.  Make sure you get approval from the provider to share this information (perhaps anonymously) with others before you do.  Sharing suggestions reinforces that you’re receptive to such things.  You may even receive personal feedback that you can share with the group, for example:

“Recently someone suggested that the strict working hours I’ve been enforcing have been causing stress to those folks that have long distances to commute.  I can see where inadvertently this is the case and thus have agreed to allow people an extra 30 minutes to arrive in the morning.”

Sometimes you can read suggestions out loud, but be prepared to hear some stiff feedback or unexpected notes.  In either case, keep a sense of humor.

Summary

Everyone wants their feedback heard, and so do you.  When you approach your boss with suggestions, you’d prefer she/he is receptive and supportive.  You should be the same way with your staff.  Lead by example, be humble and make them know that your job as manager is to give them the tools and support that are necessary to do the job, and then get out-of-the-way.

 

 

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