We all get bad feedback from bosses – but sometimes undeservedly so. That’s when it hurts. And when unfair feedback comes from out of the blue, it is very tough to respond in a way that corrects the record and fixes the problem.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article my colleague Joe Folkman and I shared an example of a customer service manager in a tough situation. A very important customer had requested some product modifications and was unhappy with the answers the manager gave him. Soon a senior business development executive, after hearing negative feedback from the customer, chewed out the customer service manager. Naturally, the executive isn’t pleased to receive the complaint, but he wrongly assumes the manager is at fault.
Imagine, for a moment, you are in this manager’s position. This senior executive isn’t your boss and probably hasn’t inquired about what might have gone wrong. But he assumes it’s your fault, that you’ve treated the customer poorly, and that you’ve seriously damaged the company’s relationship with the customer.
From your perspective, the feedback is unfair. But the executive is clearly agitated. What’s the best way to proceed? The key is preparation.
There are plenty of bad bosses. From our database of leadership effectiveness assessments on more than 50,000 leaders we estimate that 3% to 5% actually deserve the bad label. One of the distressing things bad leaders do is to give unhelpful or even destructive feedback to their subordinates. Often the feedback arrives in the name of coaching. But what these leaders do bears no resemblance to good coaching. Bad bosses feel compelled to dump distressing messages on subordinates. Not only are the points not factual, in many cases, they are often delivered in an uncaring, calloused manner as well.
Beyond a single bad meeting, three different kinds of harm can result:
- The relationship between the subordinate and the manager is ruptured.
- The self-confidence of the subordinate is rattled.
- The subordinate acts on bad information from the ill-informed boss.
What should you do if you receive feedback you don’t agree with?
No one can really anticipate these sessions. But there are ways to avoid being ambushed when they occur. We suggest several steps:
- Don’t react immediately. Assume there will be a follow-up meeting for which you’ll be fully prepared (or perhaps you can set one), but don’t even think about reacting at this moment. Act as calmly and respectfully as you can.
- Assume that the giver of the feedback has good intentions and wants to be helpful.
- Make certain you fully understand the feedback being offered, by doing the following:
- Ask numerous questions that prove you want to fully understand. These could include questions such as “Can you explain to me what you understand I did or said,” or “What were the customer’s concerns that you think I didn’t see?”
- Determine the beliefs, assumptions, perceptions in the executive’s mind that contributed to his concern. Ask something such as “What did you assume led me to give the customer that answer?”
- Ask for examples, illustrations or ideas from the boss about how this situation could have been better handled. “In hindsight, what would have been a better way to have handled that customer request?” “How might you have handled it?”
- Try to find examples of what went well, to create some balance in the discussion. “Based on what you’ve heard, were there also some positive aspects of how we handled that customer complaint?”
- Quickly acknowledge any areas where you are in agreement with the feedback you’ve received. “In hindsight, I probably could have quickly agreed that the product modifications were doable, but the timetable they were asking for was impossible. I’m not sure the customer understood that.”
- Probe for any deeper messages that the feedback might be suggesting. “I want to be certain I’m hearing the correct and complete message you want to convey. Do you think that I’m generally not very customer focused? Or, was it specifically this one event with this specific customer you are concerned about?
- Convey that you appreciate feedback and that you’d like some time to process this particular message. “Thanks for taking the time to pass on this feedback. There were some additional things you might find useful to know, but I would like to prepare more fully before I respond. I’ll get on your calendar in a couple days.”
- Seek permission to confer with others whose perspective and involvement might give clarity to what the coach wanted to convey. “I’d also like to talk with some others on the sales force to see if they think we’re being too rigid or not accommodating to special customer requests.”
- Confer with a friend to test how much validity or truth is in the feedback that you’ve received. Ask your confidant to be totally honest with you. Indicate that you want to understand your blind spots.
- Ask to schedule a follow-up meeting. Recap the message you heard, focusing on the underlying message, and indicate what you plan to do as a result (if anything).
- Do not let the bad or inappropriate feedback destroy your confidence or your motivation to perform well in the future. If you made a mistake, learn from it. If you acted correctly, you’ll know you’ve done your best.
Break the cycle
Our past research showed that direct reports of leaders tended to mimic their bosses’ behavioral patterns. If your boss is giving you unfair or baseless feedback, break the cycle. Negative emotions are contagious and destructive. Poor feedback and coaching skills can have a dramatic negative impact in an organization.
The graph below shows the impact of those with poor coaching skills and those with extremely effective coaching skills on their subordinates feeling “highly committed” to the organization’s goals. (These conclusions come from evaluating nearly a quarter of a million subordinates’ ratings of their managers.)
But that doesn’t tell the entire story. It isn’t the bad and baseless feedback alone that has this effect. It is also how the remarks are received and processed by the subordinate that makes the ultimate difference. If subordinates can be taught to deal effectively with such feedback, the cycle can be stopped.
Every organization would prefer to have two-thirds of its employees feeling a high level of commitment. Improving the way feedback is delivered is a sure way to get there, combined with training people on the receiving end of feedback on how to behave effectively when the leader does not. (And as a side benefit, the additional training can help the organization to identify and build stronger future leaders as well.)
This article was written by Jack Zenger from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.