In a recent column I wrote about my initial reaction when, after working hard and putting in lots of time, my boss’s feedback was that he was not evaluating me on effort, but on results. I shared how taken aback I was by what he said. Did he not appreciate my effort? Could he have said it in a kinder, softer way? At least he could have said, “Quint, thank you so much for your effort.”
In Peter Drucker’s viewpoint on leadership responsibility, he wrote that leaders achieve results, and there are times when being a leader will not make a person popular with everyone. It is true that people could say things in a gentler way, but the receiver also has the responsibility to hear the message and act on it.
I write on how important it is to create a great place for people to work. It lowers employee turnover, improves customer experience, and leads to financial sustainability. A big part of this is communication. There are many educational seminars on the best way to provide feedback. There are best-selling books on how to have difficult conversations. Much of what is shared is how to best educate the sender of the message. However, the receiver of the message also has a responsibility.
Recently it crossed my mind that there is not nearly as much development on how to best handle feedback that may not be positive. I am not talking about those difficult messages such as letting a patient know they have a terminal illness or the police informing a parent their child has had a tragic accident. This column is geared to those messages that an employee hears but wishes they did not.
Often I am asked what characteristics I feel are key to someone who has a desire to be in a top leadership role, like the president or vice president of an organization. The usual characteristics I share are skills like communication, developing talent, making tough decisions, strategic planning and implementation, fiscal stewardship, attracting and retaining talent, and achieving high customer satisfaction.
Now, there is one more I’d like to add: I feel the ability to receive tough feedback is critical. Some people will describe this as having thick skin. This is not a negative thing. It is the ability to receive messages that are not pleasant, while not focusing on the messenger or the way the message was delivered, but on its content.
Some people can handle this much better than others. I have never seen a person in a senior leader role who did not have the ability to hear a tough message. While they will often provide feedback around the need to learn more, they pay more attention to acting than evaluating how the message was provided.
How messages are received is very dependent on the individual. The same message delivered to two individuals in exactly the same way can be taken in two totally different ways. A person received what they thought was a very tough message from their boss. They showed the message to their spouse. They expected to hear from their spouse how the boss should not have said that. Instead, they heard, “I wish my boss was that direct. You are lucky, for now you know exactly what went wrong and what is expected.” It was the same message but different reactions.
Learning how to hear and act on tough messages can be life-changing. In my case, while I did not like hearing from my boss that effort is not an excuse for my lack of results, it was a turning point in my career.
Better leaders appreciate clarity in their role and performance. Ten years ago, a person shared with me their desire to be developed. This person did not report to me; however, I knew them and their supervisor well. My response was, “You need to be better at receiving feedback.” I explained that their response was to look hurt and share with others how hurt they felt.
I have noticed that most people say they want feedback, but do they really? Or do they want only good feedback and provided in a particular manner? We need to remind ourselves that feedback that’s hard to hear is often a gift in disguise. It helps us overcome our barriers to growth.
Here are a few tips:
- Share with your supervisor that you will appreciate direct and honest feedback and you will not be defensive or sensitive.
- When you receive feedback that you are not meeting expectations, focus more on the content of the message than how it was said. Yes, things can often be said in better ways. However, don’t lose the content of the message.
- Realize what is behind the message. The predominant reason leaders provide critical feedback is to improve performance so the organization can do better. It can mean the difference between staying open or going out of business. Ownership feels the pressure all the time. They have loans to pay back, payroll to make, and customer complaints to resolve. Usually, the messages are meant to help people keep working.
Too often when a person is let go, they say, “I did not know it was coming. No one told me.” Too often this is correct. There are times when a less-than-skilled leader holds back the performance message hoping something will change. There are also times when a person does not comprehend the message. It is a good idea to put in writing what performance issues there are and what is expected with timelines.
I find people who deliver tough messages do so because they care deeply about the company and want the person receiving the message to be successful. Mark Clement, president and CEO of TriHealth in Cincinnati, Ohio, says accountability is a four-letter word: L-O-V-E. When a person loves the mission of the organization so much, they are willing to share a difficult message when it is needed to achieve that mission. He feels it also demonstrates love for the person who is receiving the tough message. It may appear hurtful, but it is not. It is meant to be helpful.
When we learn to accept tough messages in the spirit they were intended, we are receiving love from others and letting it make us better and better.