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When to Use or Ignore Workplace Feedback

Reacting to Feedback Too Soon Can Hurt Your Career

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Never before in human history has the individual been so inundated with other people’s opinions (OPO). The social media palette of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram encourages us to provide instant thumbs up, thumbs down reactions.  We vilify and deify with lightning speed. We instantly receive our friends’ critique of a new pair of shoes, of color swatches, of sushi preparations.  We are submerged in a round-the-clock bath of shoot-from-the-hip feedback.  Accepting or ignoring OPO in your personal life has little consequence.  In fact, it’s desirable. There is something intrinsically American with giving the middle finger to convention; it feels empowering to defy OPO and pursue your own choices.

If you bring this approach to the workplace, however, you are headed for trouble.

But of course, you know that.

And yet despite this conventional wisdom, I have observed troubling extremes in how people process workplace feedback with the same knee-jerk reaction as a Twitter exchange.  Some reject constructive feedback because, as in a social media environment, there is no reason to take flak when you can simply engage with a group who loves you exactly as you are. Others may resent the feedback they receive because they have donned a cloak of victimhood and assume the criticism is based on bias, politics, jealousy, or incompetence of the feedback provider.  Those who adopt this mindset prematurely, before vetting the feedback, lose the opportunity to fix their career hindrances; an accomplishment that can only occur when you utilize uncomfortable feedback throughout your working life.  It is the hard work of making numerous adjustments to your performance based on explicit and implicit feedback that separates the mediocre from the exceptional.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who act on every suggestion without considering its source, like a nimble waiter anxious to please.  Their lack of personal conviction and insecurity contorts them into a pretzel by attempts at self-improvement in contradictory and futile ways.

How can you achieve the middle ground and discern between helpful and harmful feedback? What do you do when the feedback seems contradictory, or comes from an incompetent boss, or appears to be based on ulterior motives?

Continue reading to learn a how to discern useful feedback from nonsense.

Get Savvy About Feedback

Causal feedback from your stakeholders consists of nothing more than platitudes.  Not wanting to offend, they will say, “great job” even when they don’t mean it.  Because many organizations are aware of this, they turn to the ‘360 multi-rater assessment’, an anonymous survey that allows your entire circle (a 360) of workplace relationships to weigh in on specific topic areas of your performance and behavior. The results are often provided in the form of a score for each performance area with anonymous comments grouped at the end.  The scores are meant to provide some vital truths about you.  If 80% of your raters indicate that you are a poor communicator, you can be sure there is some validity to it.  But before acting upon your 360 results, you should be aware of three potential flaws of relying too heavily on OPO in a work environment.

Factor # 1: Consider how well the raters know you. Given the staggering rate of change occurring within organizations, employees no longer enjoy the stability of working with intact teams.  If your raters are among the constant churn of managers, teams, and project partners, their input will be superficial.  During the 2008 Wall Street crises which marked the beginning of the accelerated restructuring trend in corporate America, I experienced 4 CEOS, 5 managers, and 3 departments in the same company in the same year.  And stunningly, a 360 assessment was administered to staff.

Factor # 2: Consider the timing. Were you given feedback during a time of restructuring, such as a merger or acquisition, when everyone’s nerves were raw from change burnout?  Extreme environments can reveal hidden strengths or glaring deficiencies in your performance.  But if the circumstances under which your raters are providing the feedback are temporary and unlikely to recur, do their opinions really warrant an aggressive makeover?

Factor # 3:  Consider outgoing and incoming cultures. I was hired as a change agent to prepare an organization for an impending cultural transformation due to a merger with another company.  As the process got underway, I received feedback from some employees that my approach was not a cultural fit.  The very culture that I was hired to transform was objecting to its own impending demise. The corporate anti-bodies viewed tmy role as the pathogen that needed to be destroyed.  In this case you must acknowledge the underlying fear in the feedback of your detractors, but persevere with facilitating change despite their objections.

Vetting Suspicious Feedback

Before you commit to a personal overhaul based on feedback, consider the motives of your boss, client, or peer. Are these stakeholders sincere?  How can you discern genuine feedback from that which is based on your stakeholder’s own hang-ups such as jealousy, bias, incompetence, shooting from the hip, or politics?  It may surprise you to learn that there is an effective feedback vetting method used by those who have advanced their careers in the most tempestuous environments.  I will share this method with you because I’m a kind and benevolent coach and want you to avoid stepping in the same kaka that can be found on an old pair of shoes that are still in my closet.

Using the OIS Method of Verifying Feedback

When evaluating feedback from one of your stakeholders, apply the OIS method of questioning for clarity.  Here is the acronym:

  • Observation
  • Impact
  • Suggestion

For example, when faced with the criticism of “You talk too much at meetings”, compare the use of OIS in revealing the true intent of the provider of the feedback:

Sincere Feedback  

You:       Can you give me an example of when I spoke too much at a meeting? (Observation)

Them:  At our last weekly team meeting, you went beyond your allotted 10 minutes for your update.

You:       Why is that a problem? (Impact)

Them:  Because it cuts into other team members time and they cannot fully share their updates.

You:       Do you have any suggestions for me? (Suggestion)

Them:  Be more concise in your updates and only share highlights.

The above is good feedback and you had better practice some brevity at your next meeting.

Insincere Feedback

You:       Can you give me an example of when I spoke too much?

Them:   It happens all the time. (No Observation)

You:       Why is that a problem?

Them:  Because you just go on and on. (No Impact)

You:       Do you have any suggestions for me?

Them:  I shouldn’t have to tell you. (No Suggestion)

Their hang-up with you is not about talking too much because they have not provided specific examples of behavior or impact. If they have some power over you, try to find out what’s eating them in subsequent conversations.

You can also use OIS to vet positive feedback.  If your boss or client says, “You did a great job!” consider the two outcomes:

Sincere Feedback  

You:       Can you elaborate why you liked my presentation so much? (Observation)

Them:  You used terms that the audience could understand.  You clearly researched your audience ahead of time.

You:       What effect do you think my presentation had on the audience? (Impact)

Them:  They approved your budget for next year.

You:       Do you have any suggestions for me? (Suggestion)

Them:  Continue doing more presentations to senior management.

Insincere Feedback

You:       Can you elaborate why you liked my presentation so much?

Them:   It was great.  Real great. (No Observation)

You:       Did you think it accomplished anything?

Them:  Sure, you seemed really sharp up there. (No Impact)

You:       Do you have any suggestions for me?

Them:  Nope.  It was great! Great job! (No Suggestion)

With insincere positive feedback, beware of assuming a false sense of accomplishment and entitlement.  You are not likely to be promoted based on vague positive feedback as in the above example.

Organizational Insincerity

The OIS method is very effective at gauging sincere and insincere feedback provided by individuals. However, there is no such remedy for organizational insincerity.  This term applies to the all-too-common organization that does not truly value leadership skills, training programs, or human resources despite the fact that they pay lip service to them and spend millions of dollars annually funding them. Organizational insincerity is apparent when hiring and promotions are not based on the company’s own published leadership competencies but rather technical skills, relationships, or tenure.  This kind of organization will load a ton of feedback on your desk, but your self-improvement based on that feedback won’t advance you.  Why this charade? Because the leadership of such an organization want to demonstrate to their shareholders or a board of directors that they are a place that values their people.  The CEO will proudly showcase the amount of money spent on training, participation rates in engagement surveys, and 360s.  Yet leaders within the company do not adopt, encourage, or enforce the principals within these programs.

The takeaway for those who look to advance in insincere environments. a condition that is growing given the zeitgeist of failed leadership on a global scale, is to develop a personal strategy.  Observe the behaviors of those who are getting ahead.  Look beyond the flak of false feedback to the true indicators of success in your organization.  If these behaviors do not compromise your values, you have discovered an effective course of advancement.

Genuine Feedback Should Propel, Not Hinder  

Awareness of the various kinds of feedback you will encounter can help you build a practicum as outlined here. We have reviewed the things to consider as you poke and prod the cornucopia of feedback that is laid before you.  Reject the rotten apples of feedback that are based on self-interest.  Consume only feedback that is in season and timely.  Analyze constructive feedback by asking for examples, adverse impact, and suggestions.  Develop a unique brand that is based on improving your career hindrances but retains your personality and convictions.  You will go from success to success because you are not a nimble waiter or a bulldozer, but a discerning, thinking person who is an educated consumer of workplace feedback.

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Samuel Wineman
Samuel Wineman
5 years ago

It is often hard to realize whether a criticizer is sincere with his comment or whether he is just trying to draw attention to himself that he is doing his job by paying attention to the subject and wants his comments to be heard for is betterment and not yours. Many people have something to say about everything. When in a group atmosphere,they make many off the cuff comments and if staff who are not cognizant about their past may and often judge remarks about your ability wrong. These people climb the ladder fast to a point on other workers… Read more »

Fred Frantz
Fred Frantz
5 years ago

You made me laugh (opening cartoon) and gave me a tool that I can use (OIS). I can use this with my staff. I always appreciate how you offer concrete tools for navigating the work place. I work in a non profit and your teachings are applicable there—not just corporations

Kate Edwards
Kate Edwards
5 years ago

Really like this article, it helps people navigate the feedback they get and empowers them to dig deeper for greater understanding. Thanks!