Feedback – Painful, but Essential to Growth

Initially published on http://careershorts.com/startalk-blog/

Do you work with a global team? Have you ever wondered how your colleagues from around the world perceive you? If not, you should. We’re often unaware of how we are perceived, even misperceived, by others. You might be surprised if you took the time to inquire. Getting co-workers to share their impressions honestly may be a bit challenging, especially with a language barrier. (After six months of absolutely no feedback from his boss, one colleague from Eastern Europe asked his Japanese manager “How am I doing?”. The manager stopped checking his email momentarily, looked up and grunted “Hmm.  Good.” . . . and promptly returned to typing.) If you can tease out a bit more than this fellow was able to extract from his manager you’ll gain enormous insights into how effective you are as a global professional, and what’s getting in the way of improved relationships and results.

As an American who’s lived abroad and worked with people from over 50 different countries, I’ve become acutely aware of the “ugly American” stereotype. And since I travel globally every month on business, I tend to notice how other Americans behave during my journeys. People-watching is  a bit of a hobby, actually. Last week in Shanghai I noticed that it takes far longer for a smile to be returned than in the US or Japan, but a genuine one – sustained – will eventually be reciprocated.

OVERCOMING THE UGLY AMERICAN STEREOTYPE.  I personally make a point of avoiding contributing to negative stereotypes, avoiding the impatience and “easily annoyed” behaviors the rest of the world has come to expect from Americans. And when I’m working with other Americans I am particularly attuned to their behavior –  whether they seem friendly to non-Americans, whether they make eye contact and smile at them, whether they hang out only with other Americans during meals and breaks, whether they express sincere interest in the other people’s cultures, whether they explicitly appreciate the many kindnesses that colleagues from other cultures extend to them, and even whether they clean up their trash at the end of a workshop, let alone offer to help clean up the rest of the room (in Japan I’ve witnessed company presidents helping with the clean up). It’s surprising to me how many experienced professionals do some of those things. In a few rare cases I’ve found some who don’t do any of these! I’m sure these people would be horrified if they knew of the impact of their behavior on others. When I’ve raised such issues to their attention they usually are quite surprised to hear that something as simple as leaving a small gift behind in the workshop room was offensive to the country host.

JUST ASK! IT’S A LEADERS RESPONSIBILITY. One of my responsibilities as a global business leadership consultant is to offer advice and feedback to people from a wide variety of countries and cultures in these areas. Because professional effectiveness is so closely linked to building respectful and close relationships with colleagues, these kinds of behaviors – while somewhat personal – are highly relevant to the business. But not everyone has the good fortune to receive my personal opinion about how their behaviors might be contributing or detracting to their business relationships. So if you’re working with a global team, or with humans in general, you might want to periodically ask your colleagues how you are perceived. Just ask.

Feedback is a gift, but even within one culture people rarely seek it or crave it, in part because of the imbalance in favor of negativity. I’ve read that only about 20% of people can hear negative feedback without experiencing physical pain. Additionally, other studies have found that people 11 times more positive comments than negative comments in order to perceive the positive and negative comments as being roughly equal. Finally, who really expects a pat on the back when their boss invites them into their office for some “feedback”? All in all, this is one gift most people would rather not receive.

GIVING FEEDBACK IS A LEADERSHIP RESPONSIBILITY. While living an oblivious life without feedback may be preferable to some, I personally know the value of feedback, both given and received. To me it’s an act of kindness when someone holds the mirror of feedback up so I can have a better look at myself and see what I was blind to. Imagine I have a piece of seaweed stuck to my teeth and no one mentions it. Wouldn’t I like to have someone mention it to me so I can remove it before embarrassing myself widely? Suppose it’s stuck there for 10 years and no one mentions it. Wouldn’t I be furious to find out all of my colleagues, friends and families knew about it but failed to mention it for a decade? That’s what it can be like when we find out we’ve been doing something that has been irritating, offensive or insulting to other people after many years of being unaware of our impact on others.  While a conversation about the objectionable behavior might have been awkward, not having the conversation is a betrayal of trust, and calls into question the foundation of the relationship. People who trust each other and care about each other share useful information that can help the other person be more effective. Lacking sufficient courage to bring up an awkward topic is no excuse. Feel the fear and do it anyway! People may react defensively in the moment, but usually they’ll be grateful in the long run.

POSITIVE FEEDBACK IS BALM FOR THE SPIRIT. Sharing negative feedback when appropriate is important, but given the ratios and percentages quoted above you can imagine that positive feedback is essential. Many people suffer from self-doubt, or simply assume that their abilities are commonplace, thinking “Hey, if I can do it then it can’t be that remarkable.” Our positive comments to them can encourage them to develop even further in the direction of their own goals and dreams. Don’t be stingy with the positive comments, people! Money won’t be deducted from your checking account if you say something nice!

One additional level of positive comments that I’ve been experimenting with for many years is what I call “aspirational feedback”. This is beyond making a positive comment about the current situation. It’s about reflecting back to another person the future possibility that they could become. It’s seeing your colleagues at their highest and best potential – as if they already are that magnificent person that they could become – and treating them as if they already are that magnificent in your eyes, or at least suggesting that you see the seeds of their greatness already sprouting within them. I first used this approach when managing manufacturing engineers at HP. Some of them made changes that truly astounded me, going far beyond what I was even willing to imagine. Over the years I’ve found that looking for people’s potential, and sharing with them the possibility of greatness I perceive in them, seems to free them to become that possibility. Naturally I’m always careful to reflect a possibility that I sense they are passionate about, as my intention is for them to achieve their highest ambition, not mine.

THE TOOL OF FEEDBACK – GIVING AND GETTING. Feedback is a tool, but the spiny implement of negative feedback is often dulled through repeated use while the gentle prod of positive feedback remains unused in the bottom of the drawer. When giving feedback we need to be aware that balance means erring on the side of the positive. When receiving we need to realize that few people have the skills or the courage to offer effective feedback to us unbidden. If we wish to benefit from their precious insights we need to give them the opportunity to share their perspectives with us in a safe and welcoming environment.

Yes, feedback is a gift!  But some gifts we really don’t like, some we put on the junk pile, and some we just politely thank the person for and never use.  I personally think 360 is really powerful and valuable.  AND . . . think about how you feel when you get feedback from someone you really know loves you, and you trust them . . . if it is negative feedback, it can still be difficult to receive.  As mentioned above, a large percentage of people experience physical pain when receiving negative feedback, so follow these guidelines when you give feedback, lest it become criticism:

1.  GOAL-DIRECTED:  Focus on the helping the person receiving feedback on achieving a goal THEY care about, not just changing to suit our preferences.

2.  WORKABILITY FOCUS:  Focus on “workability” – what’s working, what’s not, what’s missing, what would make it possible . . . for them to achieve their own goals with greater ease, grace or speed.

3.  STRENGTHS FOCUSED:  Focus on what they do well and how they can be even more effective. Present alternatives to “weaknesses” language.  For example, “areas for growth”, “opportunities”, or “places where partnering with other people, using tools, or a BETTER MATCH between strengths and opportunities or challenges”.

4.  APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY:  Keep in mind that the #1 most effective way to improve individual performance is to build self-esteem (Marcus Buckingham’s research reported in “The One Thing You Need to Know”.)

And when giving or receiving feedback results in an awkward moment, know that it’s perfectly normal, and don’t give up just because of one setback. If we did that no one would ever drive again after a car wreck!

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