ESL READING: negative feedback
The Key to Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback
From an original article by Joseph Grenny (Harvard Business Review)
Feedback is not just for students! As working professionals we also have to receive feedback on our own performance; from students, peers and senior managers. How do you give or receive negative feedback? I have re-written Joseph Grenny’s article in easy to read English, and I have linked to the original story at the end of this version. There is also a vocabulary list for the less common words that Grenny has used in the article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review.
The Key to Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback
Richard manages a large organisation producing a billion dollars of product every year with a 10,000 person workforce. Richard is good at his job, and he is respected by others in his industry. I met Richard and his team every week when I was an organisation development consultant. Someone from the human resource team asked Richard to take part in a new programme called “360 Feedback”. This allowed the boss to give feedback on the workers’ performance and the workers to give feedback on the bosses’ performance (360 degrees).
Richard had never heard of this 360 degree feedback programme before, but he was eager to try it out. “Feedback” said Richard “is the Breakfast of Champions”. Richard organised a group of other employees to fill out a survey form, and the forms were sent out for everyone’s feedback. Two weeks later Richard received his employee feedback. The feedback results were displayed in charts and line graphs as well as in exact quotes from his colleagues. The results left Richard feeling crushed. For days afterwards Richard arrived at work early, locked his office door and he didn’t come out again until the others had gone home.
Most of us dislike both giving and receiving feedback, because we have either experienced or imagined a situation like Richard’s. We may have heard something about ourselves that hurt us, or we have hurt others when we said something to them about their work or habits. We believe that these types of conversation exchanges carry a high risk of hurt and upset – so we avoid them.
Richard’s mistake, and a lot of us make the same mistake, was to assume that the problem with the feedback was the content of the message. Richard thought his hurt feelings were caused by the message he received from his feedback report, but he was wrong.
Everyone wants to protect the boss from bad news, and the boss of any organisation often complains that no one will tell him or her the truth. Feedback doesn’t have to hurt, and under the right conditions there is nothing we want more than to know the ‘truth’.
The content of the feedback is not necessarily what makes people feel happy or sad. It is the psychological balance of the person hearing the message, rather than the actual content of the feedback, that makes someone feel hurt or not. If a person feels psychologically ‘safe’ then the truth is acceptable, but if a person feels psychologically ‘unsafe’ then even a small suggestion of disapproval can be hurtful and even crushing.
I visited Richard in his office after he received his feedback report. When I asked him why he felt hurt he said “They think I’m controlling! I can’t believe it. They think I’m a micromanager!” I had interviewed Richard before he received his feedback, and I asked him to predict what the feedback report was likely to say about his work style. During that interview, he smiled and admitted that the staff would probably say that he is a “control freak”. Now he had read the very message he was expecting to see, and he was very hurt. Why? Clearly, it was not the content that hurt Richard, because it was what he was expecting to hear. Besides, you can hear almost anything is you feel psychologically safe. This doesn’t mean you will be happy to hear negative feedback, but if you feel psychologically safe, you will be able to hear it, take it in and reflect on it. Richard’s unhappiness was not a direct result of feedback about a personal weakness, but from his conclusion that the feedback was a personal attack on him. It was his belief about the intention of the person (or people) giving the message. It was not Richard’s disagreement with the content of the feedback that made him unhappy; it was his belief that the feedback was intended as an attack.
Here are some principles to help you and others feel ready to give and receive feedback.
You can’t make others feel psychologically safe. My emotions are my own responsibility. No one can pour calming neurochemicals into another person’s brain to stop the automatic fear response that makes some people defensive when they have to face criticism. Our own fears are our own responsibility, and we must manage them in a way that allows us to engage in honest and open dialogue with other people. The final responsibility for making me (you) feel safe is mine (yours).
You CAN make it easier for others to feel psychologically safe when giving feedback. There is a lot you can do to reduce the likelihood that others will feel unsafe hearing your feedback. For example:
Feedback versus blowback. Feedback is information intended to help others learn. Blowback is information used to hurt someone who you feel has let you down or performed a task badly in a way that makes you feel angry. Make sure your own emotions are in order before you give the feedback. You cannot give useful feedback if you do not have a genuine concern about the other person’s growth and development.
Ask Permission. People feel safer when they are in control. Do not give negative feedback unless it is asked for. You may offer it, but then you must wait until the other person is ready to receive it. When you ask permission by saying something like, “Can I give you some feedback about your presentation?” you recognise the fact that the other person is responsible for getting himself into a healthy emotional state before the feedback arrives.
Share intent before content. People are more defensive about why they think you are saying something than they are about what it is you are actually saying. Richard, for example, believed his staff and colleagues were trying to attack him. He wasn’t upset that they had successfully identified his management style; he was upset because he thought they were attacking him for it. Before sharing feedback, it is good to make sure that others know your positive intentions for sharing. For example, “When you have a moment I’d like to discuss the sales trip. I want to be sure I’m doing my best for you, and I also want to share ways it can be better for me as well. Can we talk?”
You can make yourself feel safe before receiving feedback. Get ready before opening your ears. Never invite feedback until you are ready for it.
‘Ready’ means you want to hear the truth, not that you are ready to be praised. If you feel defensive after receiving negative feedback, it might be because you wanted approval rather than information. For example, when Grandma asks “Do you like my spinach pie?” she may really mean, “Tell me I’m a good grandma!” Richard got into the same trouble. He later reflected that when he opened the feedback report his eyes went straight to the relative scores. He wanted to see that he scored better than his other management colleagues. You cannot allow other people to be responsible for your feelings about your own ability and worth. Your psychological safety is your own responsibility. Find healthy ways to feel good about yourself and who you are. Meditations or reflections on your own values and beliefs can help you to connect to your own feelings of self-worth. Use your own way to affirm your belief in your ability for growth and improvement before you receive feedback from others. When you are ready for the feedback, listen with curiosity, not insecurity.
Hold boundaries until you’re ready. If you are not ready to receive feedback, do yourself and others a favour and let them know. Then take responsibility for scheduling a time when you will be properly prepared. It is better to tell someone you are feeling unsafe than to show them by acting defensively.
Be curious. Curiosity is the best cure for defensiveness. Act like a detective trying to solve a mystery called I wonder why they Feel That way? Ask questions and request examples. Stay curious even if you don’t completely agree. how would an impartial, reasonable, decent person interpret your situation? Later, you can decide what you agree or disagree with, but for now, your goal is simply to learn. Curiosity keeps you from being too defensive because it keeps the focus away from your own feelings of self-worth and toward the experience of others.
Richard could have avoided a lot of pain by checking his own beliefs and feelings before he read the feedback report. Others could have helped to reduce the negative impact of the feedback by telling Richard that their intentions were positive and were meant to guide him not attack him. Pain is not an essential by-product of feedback; it is a result of an absence of feelings of safety.
Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.
I have provided a glossary for some of the less common words used in the original article (below)
CRAFT (n) profession or trade
HR (n) Human Resource: staff management
DUTIFULLY (adv) performed exactly according to instruction
STRUCTURED (adj) pre-designed according to a certain pattern
GUSSIED UP (expression) dressed up to look nice
VERBATIM (adj) word for word, exact copy of what was said
SMIRK (n) unpleasant smile
EMERGE (v) come out
DREAD (v) fear
PROVOKED (v) forced into action
RECOILED (v) stepped back in fear and / or disgust
HIGH PROBABILITY (adj) high chance
RELUCTANT (adj) Not willing
SUBSEQUENT (adj) following, next
PREDICTOR (n) indicator, something that shows what is likely to happen next
CRAVE (v) desire
COCOONED (adj) wrapped up safely
BLOTTER (n) pad to place under writing paper
PRIOR (adj) previous
PREDICTION (n) a good guess as to what will happen in the future
LEVELED (adj) flattened
GIDDY (adj) light-headed feeling
ABSORB (v) soak up
INTENT (n) intention
SOOTHING (adj) calming
ULTIMATE (n) final
MALICIOUS (adj) evil
VALIDATION (n) confirmation of success
CASSEROLE (n) a type of thick soup or stew
BOUNDARIES (n) limits, borders
VULNERABLE (adj) unsafe, weak
CURIOUS (adj) wanting to find out more
INOCCULATION (n) protection
INHIBITS (v) prevents, stops
CRITIQUE (n) analysis, detailed description