Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It takes two to tango, also for feedback

There are lots of ways to learn from mistakes - through a precipitating event, through finding patterns, through unpacking a failure. One of the quickest and cheapest ways to learn from mistakes is to get and use the feedback of colleagues, customers and friends.

Yet, it's a tool that's rarely used. Why? There are two reasons.

One is that people don't like to give feedback. It's personally risky: You don't know if it will be welcomed. You don't know if it will be understood, and you don't know if it will be used. Plus, it's extra work. Today, I was at a grocery store near the lake house where we're vacationing. I had to maneuver the cart through 8 or 10 product displays that narrowed the aisles to the point where they were barely wider than the shopping cart. I thought that the manager should know that the store was hard to get through, and that this was an annoyance to customers. But did I seek her out and tell her? No.

With people you know and will see again, giving feedback can be explosive - and can backfire. People can view negative feedback as a judgment on their performance (sometimes it is), or as a distraction ("I know what I'm doing!" which is something I say on occasion to people helping me - sorry Maura!). The motives of the feedback-giver can be questioned ("is that person out to get me?").

So giving feedback is not only extra work, it's thankless and even dangerous work. And why is that? Because of reason number two:

People don't like to receive feedback. Negative feedback, if we're not ready for it, attacks what we like to keep hidden. It challenges our vision of ourselves. It's like listening to a tape recording of our own speech ("Is that what I really sound like?").

But think of this: if you can get feedback on an idea, a project, or your management style, you have valuable information you can put to use. For free!

And if you get feedback from a diverse group of people, it will be easier to recognize things that require fixes (as compared to trivial issues or matters of perspective).

Compare that to the cost of failure, or the cost of making the same mistakes over again till you realize it yourself.

If you want more feedback, you have to make yourself open to it, solicit it, appreciate it, and put it to use when you get it. That will give the signal to others that giving you feedback is safe and effective. Then, like magic, you will get more.

Another personal story: a few years ago, I was struggling to manage a new group that had been assigned to me. I sensed that I wasn't connecting with them. At the end of the year, when I was already doing my own self-assessment, I asked the group to individually think about my own performance and come up with one or two recommendations that would help me improve. I promised to listen to the recommendations and not argue about them.

I met with each team member individually, and they "laid it on me." It couldn't have been easy for them. And it wasn't easy for me. It was quite difficult to listen to all that feedback.

But I learned two things I was doing which really bugged my team members.* And they were easy to fix. I was so happy with the outcome of this exercise, and I believe it helped my team and me become a stronger workgroup. I remember the whole process vividly, nearly 10 years later.

I can also say that I haven't done it since then, even though I realize that it was valuable.

In conclusion: Inviting and using feedback is difficult. But it's very useful. Try it, and try it again. Make it a habit. It will pay off hugely for you.

* Here are the two things I learned from my team's feedback:

1. "You often curse in the office and that makes us uncomfortable" - that really bothered several people on the team. I worked on that; it was easier than I thought it'd be.

2. "When I come into your office for a meeting, you don't pay complete attention to me." - this was true; it was easy to get distracted by the Blackberry or email. So I started moving away from my computer and putting my phone aside when I had a meeting.

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