Handling Feedback: It’s About Being Transparent, Not Getting Defensive

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If you need to give constructive feedback or challenge someone, try prefacing it with authentic self-disclosure.

I recently witnessed a great example of this in action. More specifically, it was an example of:

  • A leader modeling transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability.
  • How doing so made his challenging a team member much less threatening
  • And, by doing both, modeled how to challenge someone or give negative feedback in a safe way.

Here’s what happened …

No defensiveness, just deep listening and sharing

I was facilitating a management retreat for a medical practice recently. As part of the program, each member of the team asked the others for feedback on something they do really well that others appreciate and something they could improve on.

One of the managers bravely shared with the Practice Manager, who we’ll call James, how she felt unsupported by him during an incident with a physician and the response she would have liked from him.

I watched his response closely and was impressed by how he demonstrated the “seek first to understand” maxim and then how he shared the rationale behind his response.

As he explained his rationale, he didn’t get defensive, he didn’t shut her down or “correct her.” He simply shared that his intention was to communicate that staff have the right to call physicians on bad behavior. They didn’t have to call on him to intervene.

But here’s where it got good.

How NOT to receive feedback

Another member of the management team, upon getting critical feedback about a couple of her team members, immediately countered with: “They probably do that because your people…” Now, even though she didn’t make her remark in an accusatory tone, she made it immediately after the person gave her feedback.

Reflect on what you would think if you were the feedback giver and the receiver responded immediately with a retort. You would think they didn’t care about taking in what you said, but only on defending themselves. You would probably feel that your message wasn’t heard and your sharing it was a waste of energy.

After the interchange, James the Practice Manager shared how one of their goals as a team is to talk openly with each other and how one of the things that makes that possible is listening openly to criticism. He then shared how when he was getting criticism in the group, he found himself getting defensive at first, and had to stop that response and focus on what the person was saying. He acknowledged how hard it is for him — as it is for all of us — to get negative feedback.

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Acknowledging feedback

He then went on to comment on how the manager had immediately responded to her feedback with a retort and how it would be more useful to acknowledge to the other person that they had been heard, and ask the other person for more information and clarification if necessary.

I thought it was a great example of how to challenge someone in a kind and compassionate way, by first sharing how you, too have the same automatic defensive response and that you’re not coming from a “better than” place, but from a “we’re all in this together” perspective.

The manager’s facial expression, voice tone, and verbal response to his observation indicated that she was able to take in what he said without feeling criticized, judged, or shamed. Conversely, if he had given feedback in the “Gotcha” style that some people do — especially those who like to adopt a position of superiority — she probably would have verbally accepted his feedback, but inside harbored resentment.

Take away messages

  1. Demonstrate authenticity and transparency — Be willing to acknowledge your own fallibility and natural human responses to difficult interactions or situations. When you do, your team will be able to relate to you more, they will respect you more, and they will be able to hear and value your feedback more. They will be able to do so because they see that you recognize your own humanity and don’t put yourself above them. Your modeling this will also embolden them to be more transparent and real in their interactions, which will make for a more alive, creative, and bonded team.
  2. Self-disclose a similar experience or response — When giving someone feedback, if you can possibly do so, either share an example of how you did the same thing or simply acknowledge that you have done the same thing as the other person. This helps take away from the natural “One Down” position a person feels when someone else is giving them negative feedback. When the other person feels that we are giving feedback from a position of superiority, it is likely to trigger shame, which poisons the feedback and the relationship. Conversely, coming from a position of “We’re all human and therefore imperfect” makes it easier to hear negative feedback without feeling shamed.
  3. Use self-deprecating humor — If the other person is prone to embarrassment or harsh self-criticism, I recommend that you use self-deprecating humor to acknowledge that you know only too well how challenging that situation is. Obviously, only say that if it’s true. When we do this, not only does it diminish the potential of a “One Up” position, it also utilizes the power of humor to diffuse tension and awkwardness.

One more thing

Occasionally, I meet “Old School” managers or people who are simply insecure, who are afraid that doing the above will make others lose respect for them. They fear that doing so will diminish their credibility, and power.

As you probably know from your own experience, the opposite is true. When someone in a position of power chooses not to lord their power over us, when they acknowledge that they recognize they aren’t perfect, and when they act in ways that help us save face … we not only like them more, we respect them more, and are more open to future feedback from them.

So look for opportunities to be more transparent, authentic, and vulnerable and watch your ability to positively influence increase.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.