4 steps for when tough feedback catches you off guard
We all need feedback to improve at work, but when criticism is unexpectedly harsh, your first instinct may be to run and hide. Four steps can help you stay present and react in a productive way:
Collect yourself: breathe deeply and notice how you’re feeling. Silently labelling your emotions (“I’m feeling hurt and ashamed”) can help you get some distance from them in the moment.
Understand: ask the other person for details about, and examples of, the behaviour they’ve highlighted. And then listen calmly, as if the conversation is about someone else.
Recover: tell the person that you need to reflect and that you’ll respond when you can. Don’t agree or disagree right away with what you’ve heard. Take some time to process and evaluate it.
Engage: think about the feedback, including how valid it is. Even tough criticism usually has a kernel of truth, so look for it. Then, if necessary, talk to the person again and share your thoughts.
(This tip is adapted from “How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism,” by Joseph Grenny.)
Start a change effort by acknowledging past efforts that failed
When it comes to organisational change, most companies have some track record of failure. That’s why leaders who are beginning new change efforts should acknowledge those that fell short in the past. Employees have seen their fair share of these failures, which means they’re likely to view your approach with scepticism, no matter how promising you think it is. To win them over, show that you understand the frustration they feel. Talk about the time, effort and emotional commitment they put toward past change efforts, and apologise for those efforts’ underwhelming results. (Yes, apologise — even if you weren’t at fault.) Explaining why previous initiatives failed, in detail, will strengthen your credibility. You should also explain why the new approach has a good chance of succeeding, making the case with evidence and no-nonsense forthrightness. Being honest and open in your delivery will help to dispel employees’ cynicism, which will help you avoid the fate of your predecessors.
(This tip is adapted from “Leading Change in a Company That’s Historically Bad At It,” by Ron Carucci.)
Managers, try to be a little less scary
If you’re a manager, your employees are probably intimidated by you — no matter how friendly you are — simply because of your position. And when people are intimidated, they’re less likely to offer ideas or point out problems. Keep in mind how your title affects the ways others perceive you. For example, if you ask a tough question about a project, a senior peer might hear a useful critique, while a junior employee might just hear criticism. You should also consider how colleagues view your facial expressions and body language. Is it possible that, say, some employees see your thoughtful frown as an angry scowl? Ask a trusted colleague for feedback about any body language that might be off-putting. You can also try being up front about your tics: “I know that I frown when I’m thinking, but that doesn’t mean I’m upset.” And be mindful of how you react to comments and questions. If you respond negatively when you’re challenged, people will be less likely to speak up in the future.
(This tip is adapted from “Managers, You’re More Intimidating Than You Think,” by Megan Reitz and John Higgins.)
Separate who you are from what you do
Being passionate about your job is great — but there are limits. If you become so wrapped up in your professional identity that setbacks at work affect your self-worth, that’s a problem. Keep a healthy perspective by distinguishing who you are from what you do. Your job is just that — a job. Maybe you’re a “senior analyst” at work, but in life you’re much more than that. Your worth as a person is not tied to your position on the organisational chart. So when someone criticises a report you wrote or a presentation you gave, remind yourself that they’re criticising the report or the presentation, not you. By shifting your perspective this way, you build resilience and protect your self-esteem from challenges and even failures (which are inevitable, after all). And having a strong sense of self, in turn, will help you perform better in your role.
(This tip is adapted from “When Your Job Is Your Identity, Professional Failure Hurts More,” by Timothy O’Brien.)
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 2nd, 2019