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Authors: Helene Lerner

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BOOK: The Confidence Myth
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The moral of the story: don't react, especially when you are hungry and tired! Process the feedback at a time when you can take an honest look at what is being said.

When you are face-to-face with someone and you get an unexpected critique, handling the feedback can be difficult. I have learned to pause and repeat what is being said—this gives me distance from the remark. I acknowledge the person, let her know I need time to digest it, and tell her I'll get back to her shortly. I then assess what I've heard to determine what is true about it and what isn't. If I feel the need, I talk it out with a trusted friend.

Here is the method Andrea Zintz, career coach and president of Strategic Leadership Resources, uses to deal with harsh advice: “When I receive feedback that is hard to hear,
I retreat a little to manage my reaction. Taking a breath is the first step, and then I turn inward and ask myself: ‘Should I take this personally? How can I see this from the other person's point of view?' This calms me down. I can then go back and thank that person from a centered place and process what's useful.”

No matter how high up on the totem pole you are, feedback can be difficult to take. Kim Lubel of CST Brands still finds it a challenge. “When I disappoint someone—that's hard for me. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that has happened. But when it does, I try to understand why I did what I did and figure out what to do next,” she confided.

One of the people that Kim can count on for honest feedback is Bill Klesse, former CEO of Valero Energy, where Kim used to work. “Bill is judicious with his remarks. When he speaks, it is important to listen,” she said. And now that Kim is at the helm of CST Brands, she checks in with the store employees to hear what's on their minds. “If I don't ask for their candid observations, I'm not going to get them.”

Kathy Murphy of Fidelity Personal Investing also touches base with her staff on a regular basis. In addition to giving candid critiques, she asks her direct reports for feedback about herself. Kathy keeps a list of their comments, looking at them periodically to ensure she continues to improve her skills.

When unsolicited, criticism from your team can be the hardest to take—but it can also be the most valuable. Look at how Kathy Waller of Coca-Cola, moved through her defensiveness to really hear what her team needed: “I was talking with my team about a problem we were having. Afterward, one of my direct reports remarked that I didn't smile once during the meeting. I felt myself getting defensive—it wasn't a funny situation. But I didn't react. Later I realized that they needed a sign that we would get through this challenge. I
believe now that having a positive outlook when times are challenging is the responsibility of a leader.”

Confidence spark

Try this the next time you receive feedback and find yourself getting defensive. Take a few deep breaths and repeat back what has been said to show that you have understood. Doing this will give you a little distance from reacting in a way you might regret. Later on you can reflect on what fits and what doesn't. If you need support, get input from a trusted colleague.

Debbie Storey of AT&T developed a thick skin through the years by seeing feedback as a way of expanding her skill set, and also by cultivating a group of trusted advisors that she could bounce the critique off of.

“I remember how devastated I was early on when I was told I was too competitive—I thought someone didn't like me,” she shared. Her career coach suggested that she talk to other people to get their perceptions. In doing so, she was able to gain some perspective.

“Feedback is not personal; it's just business,” Debbie advises. If she needs to, she consults with people she respects. “I sit down and ask them what they think. Do they see it that way? Should I work on it or let it go?”

Debbie also encourages her supervisors to talk candidly about areas she needs to develop. She asks for feedback directly if it is not being given. She tells them, “It's nice to know that there are good things that I'm doing, but that doesn't help me improve. Please share with me something that will give me an opportunity to grow.”

Think about feedback as your opportunity to grow. Knowing the behaviors that are holding you back from advancing is the first step to making the necessary adjustments. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “The upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance.” She suggests soliciting feedback from colleagues by asking them the following questions: “How can I do better?” “What am I doing that I don't know?” “What am I
doing that I don't see?”

Confidence spark

A disconnect may exist between how you are perceived and how you think you come across. To gain perspective, ask a colleague what she sees. For example, ask, “With my team, do I come across as passionate and caring?” Listen to what she says, and pause before responding. Be open to asking another question if appropriate.

Take in what's useful; discard what isn't

In the end, you are the one who has the final say on what you need to work on and what you should ignore. But determining which is which can become more difficult if you're in an environment where you don't trust the people giving you feedback or when the feedback is presented in an unhelpful way.

When you are unclear of the motivation of a person, Charisse Lillie of Comcast advises that you fall back on your intuition: “Maybe you decide, ‘I'm going to take this with a grain of salt.' But ask yourself too, ‘Is there a nugget of
truth here—is there something that I have to work on?' I ask myself that even if I know the person does not have the best intentions in offering advice.”

Confidence spark

If you suspect that someone is not sincere with the feedback he gives, trust your gut—you are probably right. The best way to deal with him is to be professional. Don't argue or engage; make a note of anything that rings true, and move on.

Why is it hard to give feedback?

We know that receiving feedback is difficult, but giving it can be just as awkward. A number of reasons exist why people are nervous about offering feedback, especially to women. The litigious environment in this country and the threat of being accused of discrimination or harassment is a major reason. Charisse Lillie gives an example from her own experience: “I'm a labor and employment lawyer. I've observed in my practice that some supervisors were afraid to speak with their supervisees candidly. They got nervous, particularly since they were afraid of being accused of sexism or racism by a ‘diverse' employee. But they were not doing anybody a favor by holding back and not giving clear and honest feedback.”

I have heard that some male managers have a difficult time giving feedback to women because they think we will break down and cry. That's unfortunate because managers who withhold feedback are doing both themselves and their employees a major disservice. Help them (and
yourself) by being open to honest feedback and inviting it when it is not given.

Offering negative feedback can be difficult for both sexes. For women in particular, the notion of playing nice can get in the way of being truthful about what we see and saying what needs to be done for someone to improve. We need to get over this mindset and learn how to provide honest feedback concretely and directly.

Sandra Dewey of Turner Entertainment and Cartoon Network learned the value of being direct during serious conversations when she first started managing people: “I made the classic rookie error—the harder the conversation, the more I tried to soft pedal it. When I had to fire someone, I would start off by saying, ‘You know, you're great at many things, and, by the way, you're terrible at others, so I'm letting you go.' People walked out very confused. They were wondering, ‘What just happened?'

“What I came to realize is it's more of a gift to say it directly. My mantra is ‘direct and kind.' So if I have to fire someone, I'll say, ‘As much as it pains me to tell you this, you're not right for this job, and we've reached that conclusion. I know you will do well at other things. If you want me to be more specific about why we feel this way, I can.'”

Kathy Murphy believes that candor is a sign of respect. If her group is circling around an uncomfortable issue, not being direct and honest, she will insist they be candid with each other and get the issues on the table: “If there's a concern about an employee, and that individual doesn't know what he is doing wrong, it won't be possible for him to work on that behavior and potentially progress in his career,” she shared.

Kathy thinks skirting the issue is just as bad as not giving feedback at all. “You don't want to create an environment
where people think they can only give good news or say, ‘We are all doing great,' and behind the scenes negative information is disclosed.”

Jill Campbell distinguishes between feedback that might lead to an employee exiting the company or being let go, and feedback on behavior that needs to be tweaked. In the first case, which has more serious consequences, she explains, “People tend to get defensive, or they don't believe you. That's when you need to be much more direct.”

Kathy Waller believes that more managers need to be candid. If they aren't, employees will continue to act in ways that could derail their careers. She gives an example of being direct and to the point with an associate whose job was on the line: “It was a very difficult conversation. I needed to get this person's attention and I did. I said, ‘Look, we need to talk about your future here and whether you have a future here.'”

While it's especially important in serious encounters, being direct is a good tactic for lower-stakes, day-to-day interactions as well. Giving a concise example of how someone can improve his performance is also helpful. But most importantly, don't let problems pile up. A laundry list of what someone is doing wrong is enough to put any person in a closed, unreceptive state.

Table 1
on the next page offers some pointers to help you deliver honest feedback in a direct way.

Table 1. Honest Feedback Pointers



An employee is in the position of losing his job.

Don't downplay the situation. Be candid with him.

An employee is a high potential candidate.

Give concrete advice, emphasizing that she is being groomed for management, and this is part of the strategy for getting her there.

An employee is just starting out her career.

Use examples. Role-play if the situation calls for it.

One last point to keep in mind is that not all situations can be improved, no matter how well-founded your comments are. Sometimes women may experience backlash from those unwilling to hear or accept their suggestions or managers who don't agree with their take on the issue. While you should make a point of giving (and asking for) feedback, trust your intuition to determine whether a situation warrants putting yourself in a precarious position.

BOOK: The Confidence Myth
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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