Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Why Critical Feedback Is Critical

Three years ago I almost died. I was close to renal failure and didn't know it. Pain—a crucial biological feedback system—saved my life.

Here's how it worked. Unbeknownst to me I had multiple myeloma (a blood cancer) that was producing an overabundance of plasma cells. My kidneys were working overtime to get rid of the excess and were wearing down. While I was not experiencing pain from that, it turns out that multiple myeloma also leaches calcium from the host's skeleton (a la osteoporosis). In my case that led to three collapsed vertebrae at the top of my lumbar section and I had excruciating back pain associated with that. So bad that I had trouble getting out of bed. That got me to the emergency room where the cancer and the renal crisis were discovered.

In the social realm, critical feedback serves the same function as pain in the biological realm. Just as pain comes in a wide range of degrees of severity, so does criticism. Some pain you can safely ignore; other pain can alert you to a life-threatening condition that requires immediate attention. (As many of us experience critical feedback as painful, this analogy is not such a stretch.)

In the social context, the important point I'm trying to make is that everyone needs honest reflections about how they're coming across to others. While you get to exercise discernment about what meaning to give that information, you can't work with what you don't have, and it is never in your best interest to put up barriers to receiving it… even though we do it all the time.

What do I mean? There are all manner of dodges and deflections we clever humans develop to keep feedback at bay, or to discourage observers from making the attempt:

•  Defensiveness
•  Denial 
•  Feigned deafness
•  It's too embarrassing
•  Our identity is so associated with our behavior that it's devastating to have our behavior criticized—because we translate it into "we're bad"—even though that's not what was said
•  We attack the messenger if we don't like the message
•  We dismiss the message because it didn't come in a respectful package
•  Our egos are too fragile to handle criticism (we need six positives to tolerate a negative)
•  I don't like the person who gave me the feedback and am suspicious of their motivation
•  I don't know the person who gave me the feedback and therefore dismiss or discount the validity of their perception (how accurately could a stranger see me?)
•  But I meant well

Sound familiar? Sadly, all of this is just so much shooting yourself in the foot. What's more, the stronger the reaction (which tends to be the hardest feedback to hear) is the most valuable of all. Think about it. If someone likes what you did and doesn't tell you, you're likely to continue what you were doing—which isn't a problem. If, however, someone is struggling mightily with what you did and doesn't tell you, your continuing to do what you've been doing could be incendiary.

Most of us come out of a mainstream culture that doesn't provide good models for how to do feedback well—either on the giving end or the receiving end. So we're mostly blazing trails when we move in this direction, with precious few models to guide us. While its necessary work, it tends to be awkward and clunky in the initial attempts.

How to Make the Shift
OK, suppose you're convinced that your group is better off consciously developing a culture in which members give one another direct honest feedback. How?

1. Have a plenary conversation about moving in this direction—about making it a foundational part of the culture you are purposefully trying to create. You are not likely to get there accidentally. While you're at it, ask everyone what kind of support they'd like to make this easier to sustain.

2. If you have a team whose job it is to help with interpersonal tensions, ask them to be available to help members say the hard thing if it feels too scary to do alone.

3. You might consider setting up an evening where people practice giving and receiving critical feedback, to test drive the model before you really need it.

4. Feedback is likely to land better if you are specific, describe how it landed for you (without attempting to ascribe motivations to the other person), and and can state what would work better for you (a request, not a demand). To the extent possible, steer clear of judgments and globalization—just give the feedback straight.

5. Passing along critical feedback tends to work better if you negotiate the setting. Thus, you might approach the person you want to give the feedback to with, "I have something I want to discuss with you. It's about something you did that I had a reaction to. Is now a good time?"

People have all kinds of preferences. Why not give your audience whatever will put them more at ease? Maybe they want it first in writing so they can think about it before discussing it. Maybe they prefer to hear it in the morning rather than at night. Perhaps they'd like a third party to be present.

• • •
Please understand that I am not saying you have to agree with the assessment or necessarily change your behavior as a consequence of hearing critical feedback. You need to exercise judgment about what weight to give the feedback.

—Was it simply a misunderstanding?
—Did the other person understand context?
—What might you do to make it easier for the other person next time without altering the message you intend to convey?
—What might you be willing to shift because you care about the other person and want to make things to go better?

Your mantra, I believe, should be: what truth can I find in the criticism? And based on that, what am I willing to do about it? It's OK to take your time to think about it before responding. Good culture is not a race.

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