How to Make Subjective Feedback Objective

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Some years ago an executive coaching client ‘George’ (not his real name) related to me a particularly difficult challenge he was facing. George was struggling because Sam (also not his real name – but you knew that didn’t you?) was failing in his role as a senior leader. When I asked George what the results were like in Sam’s group, he replied that they were exceeding plan. When I asked how that was possible, he replied that the role was so critical that he had been doing Sam’s job for him for some time.

George was faced with a problem: How do you deal with an underperforming leader when their objective results are strong – even if you know that they are not the reason those results are strong. In other words, your feedback is Subjective rather than Objective, and could be viewed as your opinion.

Even Objective Feedback has a Subjective Component:

In some cases you can show an employee that objective performance metrics are not where they need to be. That is not to say that they will always agree on their performance being the cause of the metric being less than desirable – but at least you have a solid starting point for the conversation. Note: For more information on handling these type of conversations see How to Avoid Defensiveness When Providing Feedback and Can You Really Get Someone to Change.

Even in the case of incontrovertible objective evidence, leaders are often unable, or unwilling, to see the connection between their operational results and their own leadership skills and/or behavior.

The Solution: You Have to Make Your Subjective Feedback Objective

Since so many of our coaching conversations revolve around subjective feedback, we created a process called Making the Subjective Objective™. Let’s use an example to show how it works:

One of your supervisors is having difficulty driving operational results. You can see that he is not engaging in effective coaching behaviors. Instead, he seems to take great pride in solving operational issues himself. This is lowering overall morale and engagement level in the team. Since he can only be in one place at a time, response times have extended and problems seem to pile up. This has caused him to complain about not being able to find skilled and hard working employees. You have tried to broach the subject of improving his coaching skills but he feels that he is already a pretty good coach.

Sound familiar?

In this case there is a mismatch between his perception of his skill level and what you believe his skill level to be. In other words – your feedback is subjective in nature.

Try Making the Subjective Objective

Ask the supervisor to rate their coaching skill from zero to ten. Note: We use zero because no one can confuse that with a good score.

If the supervisor gives himself rates anywhere from zero to eight, they are indicating that there is a possibility that they could improve. The challenge we fall into here is that we get hung up on the rating being correct – at least in our opinion. This desire for a correct score misses the point. What we want is for them to acknowledge there is a GAP between where they are and where they could be. So if they think they are a 7, and you think they are a 2; who cares? They have admitted that there is an opportunity for growth. So don’t get hung up

Once they have admitted there is a GAP and therefore there is an opportunity for growth – ask “What would a 10 look like?”

In some cases they may have some ideas of where they could improve. In other cases you may have to provide some ideas for them. In either case you have an opportunity to ask them to commit to those changes.

But what if they rate themselves a 9 or a 10?

This is the tougher scenario. Even a 9 is a 10 in disguise – they just did not want to seem arrogant. In this case, you have to have a candid conversation with them that you do not believe that their evaluation is correct. In some scenarios the person may never have worked for someone that has been willing to give them candid feedback, and while painful, your feedback could be a critical step in their career development. In other cases it may may a case of a lack of humility. And humility is one of the hardest traits to coach – and that will have to wait for another day!

 

How to Avoid Defensiveness When Providing Feedback

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when feedback failsOne of the most difficult challenges we must deal with as leaders is the fact that some people would rather blame others for their results, rather than place at least part of the blame where it certainly belongs: with themselves. We even have a term for this: Defensiveness.

When I speak with leaders there is an almost universal agreement that this is one of the core challenges that they deal with on a daily basis.

Whether you are speaking with a family member, a peer, or an employee: we are providing feedback to help that person make progress. And yet often that ‘help’ is viewed negatively and discounted by the person we are seeking to assist. Too often they seem preoccupied with deflecting responsibility onto someone or something else.

The challenge that you must overcome when providing feedback to another person, is that your ideas (feedback) conflicts with the way they see the situation – even if they believe that you have their best interests in mind. Complicating matters, research shows that a majority of employees would actually trust a stranger more than their boss. Ouch – I know. I’m not saying that lack of trust is warranted or appropriate, however it could be true that your relationship with the person your are attempting to give feedback to is strained.

How the Brain Experiences Feedback

We tend to believe that since our feedback contains useful information, providing that information to another person it will accelerate their learning. Recent research shows that the opposite is true. There are at least two reasons for this:

The first reason for this is that we make a number of assumptions about the superiority of our understanding of the problem that the person is experiencing. We communicate this superiority through our lack of questions about how they see the problem. Whether or not you do understand their situation better than they do or not – that is not the issue. The issue is that you have cast yourself in a superior role and that is almost always going to cause a defensive reaction.

The second reason that feedback often does not accelerate learning is that when we are presented with a new idea – or at least one that conflicts with what we believe to be true, we have a choice to make. We can choose to learn from that idea or we can choose to attack that idea and defend what we know to be true.

But we cannot do both. At least not at the same time.

Now if we were to be honest, we would have to agree that it is hard to be open minded about ideas that conflict with what our experience has shown us to be true.  So our natural reaction is to defend our own perception of the ‘truth’.

When providing feedback to others, what we really want is for them to be open minded – in other words we want their mind to be open to the possibility that they could learn and that the idea may actually help them. Unfortunately, our process for getting them to change their minds is flawed.

Instead of opening their minds to the possibility that their understanding of what is happening is flawed, we instead encourage the very defensiveness that frustrates our ability to assist them in making a positive change. In other words, we try to argue people into changing their minds. Rarely does this work, so we up the ante and increase the volume and intensity of our dialogue. Even if this results in a temporary change in behavior – it is too often short lived, and the person reverts to their previous behavior pattern.

A Better Model For Feedback

So then how do we coach positive change in another person?

It is actually easier than you may think.

As a leader, we are often told to ‘walk the talk’ or ‘model that which we expect from others’.

Unfortunately, we tend to interpret this in the narrowest sense – we should arrive on time if we want others to do so, we should work hard if we want others too etc. While all of these habits are a great start – they are really just the price of admission to being able to ‘lead effectively’.

So what should we do?

The answer is to model the very behaviors we desire in those we seek to lead. So, if we want people to be in ‘learning’ mode rather than ‘defensive’ mode – we need to model that behavior ourselves.

Think of a time when you last experienced defensiveness from someone. Did you you model being in ‘learning’ mode? Or did you argue with them and attempt to convince them that your feedback would help them? Did you ask questions with a desire to understand their point of view, or did you ask questions with an eye to uncover where their logic was flawed?

The question is – are you in ‘learning’ mode when they you are interacting with the people you need to model the behavior for? That’s when it counts – they need to see you making an effort to learn (interpret this as understand) their perspective on a change you are seeking them to make.

Try this experiment next time you are faced with defensiveness from another person: Set aside the need to be right, and ask questions to understand their perspective. That does not mean they are right, and you should accept their answers as facts. However it does mean that you listen and really try to understand why they feel the way they do. You will find that the emotion in the dialogue decreases, they open up and you actually can have a conversation rather than an argument.

Consider this: When we are in ‘defensive’ mode we are almost always talking. When we are in ‘learning’ mode we are almost always listening. So, to model ‘learning’ behavior we must listen. Only then will you understand how the other person sees the issue.

So how about you: When you are seeking to change the behavior of another person do you do most of the talking – or most of the listening?

How Much Influence Do You Really Have?

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Asian Businesswoman Leading Meeting At Boardroom Table

Today’s organizations are increasing characterized by cross functional teams or a matrix structure. In this environment, leaders can rarely achieve their goals by relying on the individuals that are part of their own reporting group. In nearly every case, a leader’s ability to do their job and deliver on the promises they make is dependent on the cooperation of individuals that they have no authority over. Not to mention the fact that often we need to collaborate with vendors and partners outside the company we work for.

In fact, your formal title and the authority that comes with it will only take you so far in today’s workplace. Without question the most relevant skill to address this challenge is the skill of Influence.

At The Oxley Group define we define the amount of influence you have as the inverse of the amount of positional power required to get anything done. The challenge for most leaders is that it is very hard to assess the amount of influence you have with another person. That is at least unless you know how.

Warning Signs

Here are a few warning signs that perhaps the your ‘influence’ muscle could use some work:

  1. You find your work is sometimes stalled because of your reliance on the response from individuals that do not report to you.
  2. It is hard to get people to return calls and emails.
  3. You are not invited to meetings where you perceive your input would have been helpful, or your would have desired your input to be heard.
  4. People rarely ask for your input.
  5. You rarely receive candid negative feedback – even when it is solicited.

Even the most capable leader needs to constantly monitor their current level of influence if they want to ensure maximum contribution and effectiveness.

The Influence Audit

In order to assess the amount of influence you have with the individuals that are critical to your success, perform the following audit:

  1. List the individuals that have the most impact on your ability to get work completed.
  2. Assign a score from ‘0’ to ’10’ to each contact based on how critical they are to your success.
  3. Assign a score from ‘0’ to ’10’ to each contact based on how much value they provide to you. Value includes support, timeliness, and accessibility. Do not assess your perception of their ‘skill’ as part of this equation.
  4. Now take each individual and assign a score from ‘0’ to ’10’ based on how much value you provide to them.

As you look at the scores you may see some immediate areas you need to address. Here are a few Challenges you may recognize in your scores:

Challenge #1: You have individuals that are critical to your success (question #2) however you rated them low on value they provide (question #3)

This a red flag that you may have an issue with Influence with these individuals. Consider how you can build your influence through the value you provide to them. Is the only time they hear from you when you need something? What skill do you have, or that you could develop, that you could proactively utilize to provide value to them. Have you spent time getting to know them as a person? Do you know what is important to them?

If you rated their value low and you suspect that they lack the skill for what you are asked them to do, that is a perfect opportunity to build influence by assisting them develop that skill. Remember that they may not be particularly trusting of you at first, and you may have to spend some time building trust before they feel able to open up about the challenges they are facing.

Challenge #2: You have individuals that are critical to your success and provide great value (question 2 & 3), however you rated the value you provide low (question #4)

The good news here is that you do not have a short term problem. The bad news is that you have a long term problem: this type situation is not sustainable. If you do not address this imbalance, you will eventually find that not only will your current relationships suffer, you will gain a reputation as a person that is a ‘user’. While I have never met a leader that feels they fit this term, I know of many leaders that other people would describe this way. The solution is simple: How can you start to provide value to others? Consider projects that are outside of your formal role that you do not have to be involved in. In this way your peers will start to view you as a contributor to the success of others, even when there is not a direct benefit to you.

At some point in very leader’s career there comes a point when your success will be less dependent on your personal skill and ability than it will be on the relationships that you have created that allow you to play at a higher level.