Remember the Human System? It’s the reason so many of us don’t do well giving or receiving feedback. Here’s a quick recap, worded a little differently than you may have seen it before:

  1. We are unique, with different beliefs, values, passions, gifts and voids, wiring, experiences, and so on.
  2. We are dysfunctional, and it shows up in our behavior. We might be just quirky or we might leave a wake of destruction behind us.
  3. We are blind, especially to our gifts and the way our dysfunction effects others.
  4. Because of the above point, we need feedback.
  5. However, we tend to get a little weird when receiving feedback. It’s part of our dysfunction.
  6. Because of this, YOU don’t give feedback.

I’m sorry to say that the Human System is still going strong, and it’s powerful. We are emotional beings, as much as we sometimes like to pretend we are not. Today we’re going to explore what it looks like when people get weird and how important it is to give feedback anyway.

Here are some of different ways people get weird when receiving feedback, especially potentially painful adjusting feedback:

  • Have trouble making eye contact with you.
  • Freeze like a deer in the headlights.
  • Turn bright red.
  • Say nothing in response. You have no idea what they’re thinking.
  • Say too much in response, or respond too soon. You have no idea if they heard you.
  • Get defensive, argue, or justify their behavior.
  • Tear up or start to cry.
  • Get visibly angry.
  • Yell or storm out of the room.
  • Quit on the spot. 

So, yeah, people get a little weird when receiving feedback. We all do. It’s part of our human dysfunction. And this is where you have an opportunity to become a great leader. Great leaders learn to work with the weirdness in order to give people the feedback they need.

We hope that over time giving feedback—big and little, positive and adjusting—becomes a natural part of your leadership, but if giving adjusting feedback is a growth area for you or if you have someone on your team who struggles with receiving feedback well, here are some tips:

  1. Be timely. Don’t wait for the person’s annual review! Feedback needs to be timely. 
  2. Be prepared. Know what you’re going to say. Be clear, specific, and concise. Make sure you’re someplace where you have enough privacy to have a good discussion. Be ready to listen. Keep a box of tissue in your office.
  3. Stay calm. Don’t let yourself get all weird if the feedback you’re sharing provokes an emotional response, big or small. Be water, not Diet Coke, at least on the outside.
  4. Acknowledge the other person’s emotional response if they have an emotional response. The only thing worse than having a strong emotional response to adjusting feedback is when both of you are trying to pretend it isn’t happening. So acknowledge what the other person is feeling. Give them some time if they need it. 
  5. Give them time to process and then circle back. Living Systems theory tells us that we cannot think clearly when our emotions are high. Knowing this, don’t expect the feedback to sink in all at once. Give them some time, then circle back and make sure that they heard and understood your feedback. Be ready to listen.
  6. Keep giving feedback! I’ve heard from people whose managers stopped giving them adjusting feedback after they had an emotional response. Don’t do this! Keep aiming for that 5-to-1 ratio of positive to adjusting feedback. The more feedback is a part of your leadership style and culture, the more normal it becomes for your team (this goes for receiving feedback as well).

I thought I’d close by sharing this quote from Winston Churchill:

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

What a great way to look at adjusting feedback! It’s simply calling attention to an unhealthy state of things. Don’t let the weirdness get in the way of developing healthier people, teams, and organizations. 

Lead on,

Image by RLHyde. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.