I was sitting in a meeting one morning several weeks ago when the topic of feedback arose. I just sat quietly and listened. From all I have heard in my professional career to date, feedback is (and has been) a hot topic and a “breakfast of champions” according to Ken Blanchard. After a few minutes of conversation, somebody mentioned that not all feedback is a gift. The comment caught my attention, as it wasn’t something I frequently hear when referring to feedback in a professional setting and I began to wonder, “When is feedback not a gift?”
A few days later, I decided to give my friend a ring. For the sake of this blog, we’ll call her Suzie. As an aside, Suzie and I have known each other for our whole lives but never really had a close relationship until the last two years. I couldn’t tell you why the delay but better late than never, right? In any case, through our friendship we have been reciprocally providing each other with sounding boards and honest (sometimes borderline harsh) advice in an almost mentor-like relationship through our ups and downs. It is absolutely fantastic.
At any rate, I called her to check in and see how she was doing. Suzie is a few years younger than me and is about to graduate college. In her home stretch before she graduates, she is tasked with completing a rather lengthy internship. She was pretty excited when she landed her gig but hadn’t said much about it since she started. When I asked her how it was going, she basically burst into tears.
She explained that on a progress check-in with her supervisor and her college professor that afternoon, the phone call took an unexpected turn. Very upbeat and positive, Suzie began the call and explained to her professor how she felt like the internship was going well. She explained how she had been getting great feedback, and how clients seemed like they were taking very well to her. Immediately after, her supervisor had quite a different story to tell explaining that Suzie was leisurely, too comfortable, and sometimes unprofessional. When the professor asked what Suzie planned to do about that feedback, she was not prepared to answer that question because she didn’t see it coming.
While tough feedback like this isn’t totally uncommon for young professionals entering the workforce, it was certainly unexpected. Suzie and her supervisor have weekly meetings to discuss her progress and this negative feedback had never previously been mentioned. When the call ended Suzie was visibly upset, and her supervisor said, “What’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself today.” When she told me this part of the story, she started balling. She was upset, her confidence was shot, and she felt like she couldn’t trust her supervisor. She most surely didn’t feel like herself that day.
We talked about this issue at length. I encouraged her to follow up with her supervisor once she had time to calm down and ask for specific guidance on what she could be doing differently. Though confused at the situation, she agreed that she wanted to do that. She wants to do well and please the people she works for, even if it stings.
In reflecting on this call a few days later, I think it’s fair to assume as an inexperienced young person in the workforce, there was probably an element of truth to what Suzie heard that day. Sometimes tough feedback is like that; like being hit unexpectedly with a 2×4. I can admit from my time entering the workforce, that there were many not-so-great things people noticed about me that I didn’t see in myself. However, the gift in receiving tough feedback is the opportunity; it’s constructive and a challenge to learn, change, grow, and improve. Unfortunately in Suzie’s case, the destructive delivery killed the opportunity.
This story, although not the most encouraging, helped shed some light on my original question around when feedback is not a gift. In so many words, feedback, most specifically the tough stuff, is not a gift when it’s:
1. Not specific (No “in the moment” example of what could be changed)
2. Not actionable (No desired behavior to aspire to or to be changed)
3. Not a private discussion/a surprise (Not addressed with the person before
sharing with their superior)
Of course, none of us is perfect but as you think about your own leadership, I encourage you to think about Suzie’s story and consider how you might have handled the situation differently. How could you have made the conversation more constructive than destructive? How could you have made it a challenge and an opportunity?
Let us not forget, feedback is a gift and it’s our responsibility as leaders to ensure that is the case.