How to Avoid Defensiveness When Providing Feedback

, , ,

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?

Firing Yourself is the Answer – What was the Question?

, , , , , , , ,

While the New Year brings boundless opportunity and the possibility of a fresh start, most of us find ourselves starting the New Year without a clear plan.
Why? Because while a New Year offers the opportunity for a fresh start, we also drag the past into the future with us. What I mean by this is that the longer that we stay in the same job, the more likely it is that we see that job from a stale perspective. There is old saying that goes something like this; “Do you have five years of experience? Or the same year five times?”
While it is easy to see that a peer or another employee has started to take their job for granted, it is much harder to see this challenge in ourselves.

The quality of your life is determined by the quality of the questions you ask.
When we have a ‘stale’ perspective the questions we are asking are often not helpful. In other words, a salesperson could continually ask “Why can’t I sell more?” or a manager may ask “Why can’t I find more engaged employees?”. While neither of these questions is inherently bad, they are also not helpful. This is because they are too often asked from a stale perspective. We are not really seeking an answer. We are actually seeking to change our circumstances without changing the only person that we can change – ourselves.
Which leads us to the best question I have ever come across when I am seeking to plan the next year.

Here’s The Question: Why should I be hired to do this job next year?
What if you fired yourself? I don’t mean literally – I mean as a mental exercise. What if did not have your job and you had to apply for your job right now? How would you look at things differently?
Why should you be fired?
What are the reasons why you are fireable? How have you missed expectations in the past year? What skills have you neglected to develop? What has happened that should not have? What opportunities were missed?
Why should you be re-hired?
Now that you have fired yourself, you will need to get yourself rehired. When you start a new job you have to interview for it. Pretend that you are preparing for that interview. Ask yourself what you learned last year that may you more capable in your job. Do you have the qualifications to achieve the objectives of the job this coming year? Also, when you interview for a new job you have to provide references. What would your boss, customers and peers say about your performance this year? You may want to rewrite your job description. What do you need to change in terms of your skill, behavior or attitude? What do you need to optimize that you have been doing the same way for some time? What could you eliminate? What do you need to do a better job with? Why do you want this job? What is your commitment as you start your new job?
You need to accept the job.
If you are going to accept the job this year, then you must be clear about what you are committing to. If you have done this exercise properly, then you should find your excitement level and motivation is higher than before you started this exercise!
Remember when you started this job – you were excited. There is no reason why you cannot recapture that excitement as you plan for the New Year.
Make sure that every year is the best one yet by making every year a brand new start.
So go ahead – fire yourself.

LeaderShift Live Leadership Workshop

Connecting Learning to Performance

THE CORRUPTION OF EMPATHY

, , ,

The other day I was coaching a leader that was complaining that his boss lacked empathy. In this case, the boss was demanding an increase in the level of performance of the team. The manager (I was coaching) felt that the boss was not paying attention to the circumstances surrounding the lack of performance. Then it happened… the manager shared his real concern: “I feel that by I have more empathy than my boss. Maybe if he understood what was happening in our business, he would be less focused on the numbers.”

I have found that most leaders are almost always playing a role – they are either the boss in the above example – or they are the manager. To understand which one you are, and what to do about it read more…

Empathy.

It sounds sort of wimpy to a lot of leaders. To others leaders it can become a rationale (or excuse) for not holding their team accountable to reasonable expectations of performance. However neither of these responses is accurate or appropriate when using empathy in a leadership context.

The Corruption of Empathy.

Empathy can be defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Based on this definition, it is actually not possible to have ‘too much empathy’ – however it is possible to allow your empathy (whether it is high or low) to become an obstacle to effectively managing a team.

In fact, the word empathy was hardly ever used prior to 1950, and then it’s use ramped up rapidly. The understanding of how to use empathy in a leadership context has been evolving over that time. When human resource professionals started to try and address their low scores on workplace engagement surveys, they often determined that part of the problem was that leaders had little or no empathy for the people they were seeking to lead. Since leaders seemed to be completely focused on the numbers, some HR professionals determined that if only we could make them ‘nicer and gentler’ versions of themselves then we could have both business results and happier employees.

I call this the corruption of empathy because empathy does not necessarily involve being nicer and gentler. Often it involves very frank and honest conversations that hurt at the time – however we can all attest to the fact that we are better for having had a leader that cared enough to speak the truth with love.

The Accountability-Support Continuum:

One of the concepts we teach in LeaderShift is a model called the Accountability-Support continuum. In this model, Accountability Focused Leaders tend to be more preoccupied with the numbers, while Supportive Leaders tend to be more aligned and understanding of the situation that the people they seek to lead are experiencing.

Which one is better? The answer of course is BOTH. As a leader, you are accouable for achieving results. However, in order to achieve those results you must understand the how your employees ‘see’ the problem so that you can more effectively coach them into different behaviors in order to achieve better results.

When we ask leaders where they would rate themselves on that ‘Accountability-Support Continuum’, most leaders says they are about in the middle.

An therein lies the problem, as very few leaders truly can strike a balance between accountabilty and support – especially when they are under pressure. Now, I am not saying it is not possible – just that most leaders make assumptions about where others would place them.

Who Really has Empathy?

So who really has empathy? It would appear at first glance that the Supportive Leader is more empathetic. But are they?

It may be that Supportive Leaders are no more empathetic than their Accountability Focused cousins. If empathy is understanding and seeing as others see, then Supportive Leaders may be as guilty of prideful arrogance as anyone else. Think about it. Essentially Supportive Leaders are saying that ‘they get it’ and their boss and/or peers do not. What they really have for their employees is sympathy, as they have ‘bought in’ to the way their employees see the problem. In doing so they have abdicated their position of leadership, and can no longer help their employees navigate their way through the problem.

So while there is no question that an Accountability Focused leader needs to increase their empathy by reaching out and making more effort to understand the challenges associated with changing results, the Supportive Leader must also not use their Empathy as a crutch to excuse poor perfromance.

How do you balance Accountability and Support? 

  1. First you must find out what your natural orientation is, especially under stress – Accountability or Support. Do not presume that you know the answer to this question – I have seen too many leaders get this wrong! By the way, if you are a Supportive Leader you cannot task your employees for feedback on this question. The will inevitably tell you that you are a balanced leader. And if you are an Accountability Focused Leader you cannot ask them either because they will reluctant to be completely truthful. Instead find some peers and ask them – as well as your boss.
  2. Once you know where you reside, start working on developing the muscle on the other end of the continuum. If you are a more Accountability Focused Leader, start with reading this blog post USING GOAL SETTING AS A DEVELOPMENT TOOL. If you are a more Supportive Leader, you will likely encounter a fair amount of defensivess when you attemt to speak with them about their lack of production. Consider starting with this blog post HOW TO COACH AND DEAL WITH DEFENSIVENESS EFFECTIVELY.

Empathy is a critical skills for you as a leader to develop – you can never really have too much – but you can use it inappropriatley!

Here’s to your success!

Andrew

We have found that most leaders are frustrated that they experience the same problems day after day. At the LeaderShift Workshop we teach leaders a process that helps them create a Performance Acceleration Plan so that they radically accelerate their business results. To learn more click here or on the icon below.