Feedback that gets through

I’ve been thinking about something Charlie Seashore said when he was in town in December: People are more likely to hear feedback that isn’t about an area where they’ve already done a lot of thinking and formed an opinion.

This seems true to me, and aligns with Kenneth Boulding’s work on image. Boulding holds that our image of the world is build up overtime through our experiences and education. When people are confronted with a fact or idea that is in direct conflict with that image, the first impulse is to reject. People are more likely to accept new information that they can integrate into their existing image of the world.

So how can a manager deliver feedback that may conflict with a person’s image of his own abilities?

First, avoid these traps that will virtually guarantee that you won’t be heard.

Accept that humans can never see themselves as others see them. At the extreme, lack of self-awareness of how our actions and behaviors effect other people is pathological; but we all have this to some extent. It’s part of being human, so don’t blame people for not seeing their own faults.

Avoid labels. Labels usually generate a kneejerk “No, I’m not” reaction. The second reaction is to list incidents that contradict the label. At this point, the feedback receiver isn’t hearing anymore, he’s defending. And really, what’s the point of getting someone to agree he’s a slacker, or a poor motivator, or a sloppy coder? (You do need to get agreement on the data, though, or your feedback is going nowhere.)

Don’t expect people to accept a negative assessment of their behavior or skills just cause you say it’s so. It’s unrealistic to expect people to let go of a long held self-assessment on the drop of a hat. If they’ve never heard the message before (and believe me, I’ve seen plenty of cases where no one ever told them). Give them the data, what you’ve directly observed. Or suggest that the person talk to some trusted friends–friends who will be honest– about whether they’ve observed the same behavior.

Avoid comparisons. I had a manager who actually told us to “be more like Margaret.” Margaret was a great person, but a whole staff of Margarets? Comparisons make the person on the “wrong” side of the comparison less, and tend to hook into early shame messages. And you really can’t expect a person to take on the personality and behavior of someone else.

Some times people assume that you are labeling them. Then you need to Defuse defensiveness. I watched Jerry Weinberg do this a couple of years ago (he’s a master of feedback). The conversation went something like this:

Feedback receiver: So you’re saying I’m demotivating.

JW: No. You’re a very motivating guy, and you do some things that demotivate people.

It was fascinating to see the feedback receiver relax and open up. Then they could have a conversation about the demotivating behaviors and other options.

More on giving feedback here.