By Andrew Forrester
Feedback can be hard to hear, but what does one do with feedback that’s confusing or inconsistent? How can you align your leadership style to meet the needs of different people? Here are some tips for carving a path forward.
“No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.”
Jim Yong Kim, American physician and anthropologist who served as the 12th president of the World Bank from 2012 to 2019
It’s not unusual: you meet someone, you hit it off and you mention that person to a friend. “I really liked so-and-so, they seemed so kind and down to earth.” “Down to earth?” your friend sneers. “So-and-so is the most arrogant, pompous, pigheaded person I’ve ever . . .” You get the picture. Our perception of others is dependent on hundreds of conditions and contexts. How do we know her? Where did we first meet him? What is the power dynamic between us, and how is it shaping our interactions?
People are complicated; they can be messy and inconsistent. And sometimes, it’s your job to manage those messy, inconsistent, completely normal people. As a result, you may be the one about whom perceptions vary widely (and perhaps wildly). One employee thinks you’re a micromanager, the other thinks they don’t get enough of your attention. So what do you do? How can you learn from these various perspectives and the inconsistent feedback to which they lead?
LISTEN, LISTEN AND THEN LISTEN SOME MORE
When it comes to feedback, regardless of its quality or character, the most important thing you can do is listen. People have a deep need to feel heard, and as a supervisor, you are uniquely situated to give them that very specific gift. Perhaps you’ve been evaluated as a caring and discerning person, but someone you supervise complains about your aloofness. It can be really tempting to get defensive, especially if feedback feels like an unfair attack on your character. But nothing is less likely to change someone’s mind than a simple denial. “No I’m not” is not the rebuttal we hope it is.
When you ask for feedback, or even when it comes to you unsolicited, it is your job as a supervisor to regulate yourself and your reactions regardless of the outcome. Just wait. Just listen. Assume the posture of someone who wants to learn and give your employees the freedom to teach you.
PURSUE CLARITY AND ASK FOR EXAMPLES
Of course, there is always the possibility that the person assessing you has simply got you all wrong. But more than likely, their words contain a kernel of truth. Depending on the format in which you’re receiving this feedback, consider whether you can ask for examples: “That’s so interesting,” you might say. “I’ve heard from others that I am a good communicator, but you’re saying that you leave our meetings confused and overwhelmed. Can you think of a particular time where you found this to be true?”
Chances are, they have specifics in mind. Let them tell you about them without interruption, and then finish the conversation with something simple and honest: “Thank you so much for telling me this. I’d love to take some time to really think about what you’ve said and reach out next week to discuss. Does that sound alright to you?” You’ve now invited your employee to say what’s on their mind, you’ve signaled that you’re taking it seriously and you’re giving them the chance to partner with you in a way forward. Just by listening and responding, you’ve helped your employee feel empowered, and you’ve bought yourself some time to think things over. It’s a win-win.
DO A SELF-ASSESSMENT
Now comes the tricky part. Take the first example: one employee indicates that she feels like you’re distant and unavailable while she’s making decisions without help or direction; another employee says you micromanage him, that he feels overly scrutinized and that he’s desperate for a little breathing room.
What’s going on here? The only person who’s interacted with both of these people in your specific leadership capacity is . . . you! Which means it’s up to you to assess both the messages and the messengers. What do you think is the root cause of these discrepancies in people’s perspective of you? In this situation, perhaps what Person A sees as distance is actually trust. Perhaps Person B’s sense of being micromanaged is in fact intended as hands-on mentorship.
As is often said, perception is reality. Impact is sometimes more important than intent. Hard as it may be, your role requires you to split these hairs and see where you’ve dropped the ball. Take a beat and consider how you can align your objectives with your employees’ experiences.
ASK SOMEONE YOU TRUST
There’s never a bad time to pursue an outside opinion. Somewhere along the way between feedback and follow-up, bring in a trusted associate. What do they see in this situation? What have they observed about your interactions with Person A and Person B? How do things appear to someone on the outside?
Ideally, your colleague respects you enough to be honest, and more than likely, their unique vantage point can help pinpoint where your intentions and their impacts have diverged. Once again, your job is to listen. You trust this person for a reason, but taking direction requires humility. With their help, develop a plan of action and take steps to communicate it to the people concerned.
FOLLOW UP AND FOLLOW THROUGH
Now it’s time to keep your promise. If you’ve planned to follow up in a week, do so. Make it a priority to touch base on this particular snippet of feedback at least one more time: “I’ve thought about what you said, and here are some steps I intend to take . . .” When applicable and necessary, apologize. And if you find yourself explaining the why of your behavior or process, couch your response in “I” statements. “I’m so sorry I’ve made you feel ignored. I have a lot of trust in you and your decision-making abilities, but I never want you to feel taken for granted. Please know that I’m always available for questions . . .” and so on and so forth.
Again, it can feel really tempting to defend yourself, or to preference one type of feedback over another. Apologizing, admitting wrongdoing, or even just acknowledging a disconnect can feel like losing an argument. But you’re the boss. Your job isn’t to win; it’s to lead. And if you can take disparate feedback and offer a synergized response that works for all parties concerned, you make your employees feel seen and heard and best of all, you come out a stronger, fairer, more effective leader in the end.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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