Three more reasons “You don’t take feedback well” is risky performance feedback
In my previous article, I discussed the common tendency for managers, in a feedback conversation, to give the secondary feedback to their employees, “You don’t take feedback well.” Perhaps you have experienced this scenario yourself: you receive feedback from your manager, and you react negatively in some capacity (perhaps by debating the feedback, or respond with emotion), only to be told, often in the same session, “You need to take feedback better.” I argue in my previous article that this reveals the manager
a) is willing to distract away from the original intent of the feedback conversation, and whether the feedback is actually incorporated
b) believes the feedback conversation would not or ought not surface a response
c) is interested in protecting his or her ego.
There are more things that “you need to take feedback better” reveals about the manager. Here they are:
1. It probably means that the either manager or employee or both together are new to the feedback conversation process
When a manager gives feedback to an employee, and the employee reacts negatively, this is probably a sign that the whole performance feedback process is new to either the manager, the employee or both together, which are all highly likely situations. It should be expected that initial performance conversations will be wrought with defensiveness, excuses, emotion, and other reactions. That is, they will be clunky. But if the tandem keep working on it, and try to have performance conversations over time, they will both get used to the process and stay increasingly focused on the performance and the desired outcomes.
It should be expected that the more the manager and employee do something (in this case, have feedback conversations), the better they will be at it over time. Isn’t this true on just about every other activity? When the manager feels like the (initial) conversation isn’t going well – this should be the default understanding: “We’ll keep working at getting better at this,” rather than immediately assert that the “taking feedback” part is an inimitable defect in the employee. So to you managers out there, don’t be surprised when the first time you do something it isn’t perfect.
2. The manager isn’t taking into account the complexity of the situation
When the manager gives performance feedback and the employee reacts negatively, I’d take a look at the manager’s (and larger team environment’s) role in this. It is highly likely that are many contributing factors to the employee’s behavior, and contextualizing the behaviors within the system that helped generate them is a way to better identify what the preferred behaviors are.
I advocate for a “sympathetic model” of performance feedback, which takes into account the complexity of the situation and the system that the employee and manager find themselves in, and instead of a performance feedback conversation, it should become more of a strategy session on how to approach situations as a team going forward. This describes the majority of feedback conversations in our complex work environments. So instead of feedback conversations (and the ability to receive feedback) implying that what’s wrong with the situation are (exclusively) the employee’s behaviors, the feedback conversation should imply that the employee and manager will strategize to try new things in the next go-‘round.
3. The manager is taking shortcuts in the performance feedback conversation
A common reason employees react to performance feedback badly is that the performance feedback is given badly. Given that managers are generally given limited amount of training for the practical skill of managing, and are usually expected to create their management practices based on their own intuition, it stands to reason that a relatively low percentage of managers are highly skilled at giving performance feedback. Therefore, the poorly reacting employee is perhaps the most immediate mechanism for revealing this skill-deficiency in the manager.
Let’s go through the common example of when managers attribute a singular incident to a generalization about the employee’s permanent and unchanging nature.
For example, the following is poorly provided feedback: “Your email communications are too wordy.”
This is poorly provided feedback because it generalizes ALL of the employee’s emails as wordy, and implies that this is a deep flaw in the employee that would be difficult to change, even if the employee made the effort to change it. The more likely situation is that the employee sent one or two emails that one or two recipients thought were too long. Alternately, specific and immediate performance feedback can be articulated this way: “The email you sent yesterday can be considered too long by the VP. In looking at it, I would cut out this and that section. Let’s keep this feedback in mind for the next communication.” (Will the employee react as negatively to this improved version of the feedback?)
“You don’t take feedback well” is a similar example of feedback that is actually a summary of the employee’s deep and true nature, and such summations are very likely untrue, and can easily be proven to be untrue. The employee is likely to be able to cite hundreds of instances where performance feedback was received without incident. Of course, if the employee has been observed as not taking feedback well – especially outside of manager/employee feedback conversations – then this is something that affects on-the-job performance, and deserves a feedback conversation.
So if you find yourself in a situation where employee is reacting negatively to feedback, there are many reasons why – and there are many plausible reasons beyond the notion that “the employee can’t take feedback.”
For you budding management designers out there, think about what do you do to ensure that the employee’s reaction to performance feedback (and the manager’s reaction to that) isn’t the story, and to keep the commitment to using performance feedback as a tool to improve performance.