Image courtesy of Amber Rieder, Jenna Traynor, Geoffrey B Hall
I know of something even more difficult and frightful and face-flushed-all-red than getting feedback.
In my role as assistant principal, I give a lot of feedback. I give it to students; I give it to staff; I provide it to parents when appropriate. I give it when requested and formal (e.g., teacher evaluation) and when it is not solicited, or expected, or necessarily wanted. So why is it so difficult? After all, isn’t the “giver” of feedback the one in the driver’s seat, the one in the “active” (command) position, while the recipient plays the passive role, listening (maybe) and absorbing (possibly) your wisdom?
Reflecting on years of giving feedback, and watching other people give me feedback, I believe that our surface perception of the feedback experience is inverse to what is really happening: the giver of feedback is as or more likely to feel stressed by the encounter as the recipient. Why is this? Fundamentally, I think it comes down to people being, for the most part, empathetic creatures. We don’t like conflict. We don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings. Giving someone feedback (translated: sharing your critique of someone’s words, actions, beliefs, work…) raises the stakes of the fragile, unwritten pact we have in society – don’t rumple feathers, live and let live, etc.
Well, that is a challenging paradox to confront when our leadership role requires us to do it!
Giving feedback is just as critical to good leadership as possessing the openness of mind and heart to receive it – and, when appropriate, practicing new behaviors in response to it. But a leader needs to make sure that the conditions are right to create a positive feedback experience for the recipient – experience tells us that even the most benign “feedback” interactions can leave someone with hurt feelings and can, sadly, damage a relationship for years if done in too blunt, insensitive, or hurried a manner.
I have a few thoughts on the ideal conditions leaders can strive to meet in order to have meaningful, respectful, and healthy feedback conversations that strengthen relationships and nourish professional growth:
1) Don’t be angry.
How can we avoid being angry? Leaders are people too, with just as much a right to their emotional responses and reactions as everyone else. There’s just one catch: organizations pay close attention to their leaders’ behavior, and the everyday working climate, and longer term cultural mores, are closely tied to how that leader behaves in formal and informal spaces. Translated: life isn’t fair. Getting mad at someone is perfectly human (and is certainly an archetypal leadership strategy), but leaders must question if that anger truly helps them attain their bigger goals. One angry interaction doesn’t just leave a lasting memory in the recipient; word travels to their close colleagues – and beyond.
If you’re mad at someone, wait to have the conversation. It’s rarely so urgent that it must happen right away. While it may be one of many tough conversations you have on any given day, it is most likely a much rarer event for the other person. Remember that you are someone in a position of authority, and anger and authority are a scary combination. (This is equally true for teachers in relation to their students)
Dr. Judy Willis, a neuroscientist and educator, has done incredible work thinking about how we can use our understanding of brain function to create the best learning conditions for all kids. I think this also applies to how we as leaders have our challenging conversations with adult colleagues. Here’s a great article she wrote on the subject, and below she gives a quick intro on the important role the amygdala plays in managing emotional responses (starts at about :40 in). All this adds up to one simple rule: keep your amygdala nice and cool!
2) Prepare for the conversation.
Teachers plan units and lessons. Architects make drawings of buildings before the first shovel touches dirt. Why don’t leaders practice more what is certainly one of the key aspects of their work? This is where relationships become supremely important; a good leader knows in advance how someone is going to receive feedback, so they need to think deeply about how they are going to communicate to that person to ensure a positive outcome. This internal semantic work then needs airing out with a live person; it is critical that the leader be vulnerable enough to admit that he needs to stumble his way through this trial run with a trusted colleague to give the real deal a better chance of success. (“Success” of course is never a guarantee when it comes to human conversation!)
It might even be a good idea to talk to someone from another school – or from outside of our field of work altogether – to ensure more objectivity in the feedback we solicit for the feedback we’re about to give!
Lastly: let them know the conversation is coming. A quick conversation in the hallway, or (less effective but still better than nothing) a brief email indicating that you want to find time to talk about “x.” In this respect the conversation doesn’t feel like a surprise attack; you are giving them the opportunity to anticipate the conversation and prepare their thoughts. Maybe this is the “flipped” version of the feedback process!
In another sign that all is connected in the universe, I was folding clothes after writing this last segment with the television on in the background; the following scene from the movie “Moneyball” was playing. It shows just how hard it is to even practice a tough conversation! (Disclaimer: the example of cutting a player is not a “feedback” conversation by any means – though, as any leader knows, it does come with the territory)
3) Be honest about your feelings.
If there is a behavior you want to address that frustrates you, then say so: “I have felt frustrated by…” This is different than being “mad” – this is an example of being vulnerable. You are speaking your truth openly and transparently. You are also identifying that you are a human being with emotions, and that by sharing your emotions you are looking to build on your relationship. Speaking in passive voice generalizations distances you from your colleague and dehumanizes an opportunity to make a real connection.
4) Go to their space.
This idea brings to mind the archetype of the executive office: big, intimidating, with a long walk between visitor and master behind his throne. Most leaders out there probably do not have offices like that – certainly not in education. However, the “office” is still associated with the executive seat of the school, and with that comes some baggage. If we want people to be in a more receptive mindframe when we have these conversations, why not take it on the road? I think it is also a sign of respect that you are coming to their office to have this talk.
5) Follow up with them soon after the conversation.
If learning and growth are our ultimate goals, then it is important to not make the feedback conversation a “hit and run” experience. Even if the two of you exit the conversation with smiles and a handshake, it is still important to check in soon after if only to say “I really appreciated our conversation the other day; I wondered if you had any more thoughts about it?” This underscores that, above all else, you value them as a person and as a colleague.
I enjoy receiving feedback, though I am unashamed to say that it is, and will continue to be, a scary experience; to be truly open to another person’s perspective (or directive) means having to reconsider what I do and how I do it. I realize that I do not have to agree with someone fully to be able to listen for truth in their message.
Over time, I have also developed more empathy for those that give me feedback – I can empathize because I have walked in their shoes. When I sense anger, displeasure, or general grumpiness in someone giving me feedback, I understand their discomfort. Even if I myself am experiencing tension in the moment, it helps me to see that the other person is also struggling with their task; after all, it is one of the most difficult to master.