DC Executive Coaching - Dealing With Feedback, Positive And Negative

By: Virginia Konrad

From an executive coaching perspective, dealing with both negative and positive feedback is truly a significant, complex and personally difficult task to take on - whether it's being received or delivered. Typically, feedback coping mechanisms are developed early in life, and cemented as they're used and prove useful through early employment and adult relationships. However, bad habits or simply unknown expressions of behavior can still creep into your interviews, subordinate or supervisor relationships, employee or human resource interactions, or any other business or personal interactions - and you don't really find out until it's too late.
In this article from DC Executive Coach James Bowles (jamesbowles.com), the concept of eliminating negative habits is discussed.  James Bowles is one of Northern VA and the Washington DC metro area's foremost experts on Executive Coaching, Human Resources, and Human Capital Performance Management.
Bad habits creep in to our behavior over time.  Many successful people convince themselves that their bad habits are strengths and points of pride, and the bad habits become even harder to break.  People get promoted because of skills, results, and luck, but are often eventually derailed by their negative interpersonal habits.  There exist many bad habits in the areas of communications and competitiveness, but there are also many others.
So, what are your bad habits, as an executive, manager, supervisor, employee?
Discovering and accepting feedback about your bad habits is by far the toughest challenge in the process.  No one really wants to hear or accept negative feedback.  Even if you are the most open person in the world, getting criticized is painful.  Even when we ask for feedback, there is a part of us that instantly wants to defend or explain our behavior.  And because we don't want to get negative feedback, we feel bad about giving negative feedback to others as well.  Managers feel a tremendous amount of stress about giving negative feedback even when it's part of their job.
The culture of Corporate America and its executive promotion, human resources and human capital management processes also does not put value on feedback.  People are conditioned to "not rock the boat", "not burn bridges", "deal with the devil you know".  When was the last time you saw someone rewarded for giving their boss negative feedback?  Many companies and hr departments have stopped doing exit interviews, because even the unhappiest leaving employee has learned to not go on record with bad things to say about the company for fear of repercussions, even when the chances of ever returning are 1 in 1000.  
So, the paradox of feedback is that it's critical to identifying and eliminating bad habits.  But you don't really want it.  And no one really wants to give it to you, at least in person, non-anonymously (receiving feedback via anonymous comments on blogs and other social media is a different matter, to be discussed in future articles).  So, how do you find out what your bad habits are?  Here are four possible ways to find out.

  1. Ask Others Asking people for feedback seems like the most direct approach.  However, there can also be difficulties with this approach.  First, it's uncomfortable for the person being asked, and you may get a watered-down response.  It's much easier to try to avoid the conflict.  Also, there is an expectation that you will accept the feedback.  If nothing changes and it's never mentioned again, the feedback giver will feel like their input was discarded, and trust will be broken.The best way to ask for feedback directly is to focus on a future positive outcome for others.  In other words, don't say "Tell me something bad that you saw", but instead ask "What could I do to become a better _________ (manager, employee, spouse, etc.) for you.  This shifts the focus on a positive outcome for the person giving feedback, and you will probably get a better answer.
    After receiving feedback, remember to say "thank you" (and per an earlier article, shut up!).  Be very careful about not becoming defensive, or trying to justify your behavior.  Remember, you asked!

  2. Observe the way others act towards you If you could watch a video tape of all of your interactions with others for a week, and remove all of the filters of your own perception, you would learn a lot about your own bad habits.  Marshall Goldsmith describes a technique where people write down every comment made to you or about you for a week.  After a week, patterns emerge that show you things that you may not otherwise see.For example, I happened to notice in the workplace that every time I started a presentation, the audience sat back in their chairs and made jokes with me.   I started to wonder whether this was something I was doing.  For about a week, I kept track of this, and found out that I was constantly interjecting humor into all of my daily interactions.  As usual with this series, I had always thought that making jokes was a strength, but it finally dawned on me that I needed to dial it back or I wouldn't be taken seriously.
    Observing yourself can be eye-opening, but it's also very difficult to trust that you are not seeing what you want to see!

  3. Trusted Confidants Having people you trust who will tell you the difficult messages is very important, but they are very hard to find.  Confidants can be co-workers, family members, friends, etc. who in contact with you regularly and have only your best interests in mind.  They are people who you have mutual trust with, and you know that there are no hidden biases or motivations.  They can give you feedback, and not let you off the hook when you try to defend or explain your actions.However, recognize that most of the people in your circle do have an agenda.  Family members may want security, co-workers may have competing interests, etc.  This is the reason that many successful people seek out external coaches for feedback and development, where the mutual goal is their success.

  4. Anonymous feedback I could write an entire book on the 360 degree feedback process.  As of this writing, there are 465,000 Google hits for 360 degree feedback.  There are companies who offer online tools to implement 360 degree feedback, questions benchmarked around good managers or good results, and books about how to use this in the workplace.  I won't repeat that here, but I will give you my opinion on a few critical success factors.I am a believer in using 360 degree feedback for development purposes.  However, I am not a believer in using it in the workplace as a performance metric (i.e. to decide compensation).  I think that there are too many ways to try and manipulate the process to get good results.  For example, I've bought new cars over the last 20 years, and have been amazed at the different ways I've been threatened, bribed, or manipulated by the dealer asking to give all 5's on the dealer survey.  Clearly, they don't want the feedback, just the reward from positive answers.
    The nice part about 360 degree feedback is that it's anonymous and a lot of people can participate.  You will get feedback.  You will be expected to take some action with it, but the hidden agendas are removed.  The downside to this process is that you may not get all of the supporting detail you need to act.  It's not a good idea to then walk around and ask, since it will be perceived that you are trying to break confidentiality.  This is where a trained facilitator/coach can help you interpret and accept results, and put together an action plan to make improvement.

In summary, using a combination of these successful personal executive coaching methods will get you some feedback.  The difficult part is interpreting, accepting and internalizing the feedback.
Tips for Getting Feedback

  1. Find a key person in your career/life, and ask them "what could I do to be a better _______".  Say thanks, then take a note to follow up in a month.

  2. Observe people's comments/body language towards you for 1 week.  Keep a log.  At the end of the week, review the log and look for trends.

  3. Find someone to help you implement and interpret 360 feedback.

  4. Read "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith, available at Borders Books.

Once you are comfortable that you have the feedback, all that's left to do is to turn it into an action plan, which is our next topic in this series of articles.  Check back at jamesbowles dot com for additional executive coaching, human resources consulting and human capital management topics, newsletters and articles for more.  Find out much more about Washington DC and Northern Virginia business news and information at our VADCMD blog on wordpress.

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James Bowles is a premier Northern Virginia and Washington DC Executive Coach, offering Executive Coaching, Human Resources Consulting and Human Capital Performance Management Consulting services from Northern Virginia. Article submitted with approval by Virginia Konrad, at Northern Virginia and DC Business News.

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