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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?

“I’ll do my best” (and other words) that should make a leader’s spine crawl

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We’ve all heard it said after coaching to improve performance – the infamous ‘I’ll do my best’ or even better – ‘I’ll try’.

OK, maybe I am a bit of a Star Wars geek, but I love the scene where Luke is ‘trying’ to use his fledgling knowledge of the ‘force’ to raise his fighter that is sinking into the swamp. He tells Yoda that he is trying and Yoda rejects him outright. Yoda tells him, “There is do, or do not. There is not try”. Well, I am not suggesting that you should dress in a ratty old cloak, grow long ears and carry a light saber. What I am suggesting is that when we allow these expressions to go unchallenged we engage in what I call ‘pretend coaching’. To really coach employees we need to dig a little deeper.

The question is : What do “I’ll do my best” and “I’ll try” really mean?

While there is no single answer to that question, I would like to suggest that these words should make your spine crawl as a leader. That is because what typically follows ‘doing your best’ or ‘I’ll try’ is, well – more of the same. So why do we pretend that our feedback was well received? If you really want to improve performance we need to first understand why these responses are so prevalent when coaching employees for change.

Here are some possible reasons for this type of ‘non response’ from an employee:

  1. They are well intentioned and want to change, however they are unclear about what you expect.
  2. They are well intentioned and want to change, however they are unsure that they can meet your expectations.
  3. They are not well intentioned and don’t want to change, however they do not believe that you will hold them accountable to changing in any kind of meaningful way.

The problem is that when you leave the dialogue with an employee with a somewhat vague commitment to ‘trying’, you also create an inability to hold the employee accountable to changing. After all, as long as they ‘try’ or ‘do their best’ then they have fulfilled their commitment to you.

How do you avoid ‘pretend coaching’ when coaching to improve performance?

So, how you avoid this trap?

First of all, you should start with the assumption that the employee wants to do a good job and change in whatever way is being requested. This is important, because quite often after a few rounds of pretend coaching, the leader starts to doubt the employee’s motivation and commitment. While this may be indeed the case, we have not earned the right to make that assumption.

So instead of assuming the worst, when an employee responds with an “I’ll try” or an “I’ll do my best” – imagine that they are running a big red flag up a flag pole that is screaming “I know you want me to commit to this but I see a problem!” Calmly say something like “I actually think you always try to do your best. Is there a reason why you feel unable to commit to doing what we have discussed?”

Then listen and ask questions. Don’t argue. Don’t listen just long enough to jump in and correct them. Really listen. What you will typically find is that they will tell you what their real concerns are. Then and only then will you be able to coach them on what they feel is the obstacle to doing what you want accomplished.

While this does not assure success, it does assure that you will be engaging in a true coaching dialogue. In order to diagnose further what the challenge blocking performance improvement might be, we offer a free Performance Trouble Shooter that will help you diagnose performance issues and pinpoint what you can do to maximize the likelihood of coaching success with any employee.

To download the Performance Trouble Shooter just click here.

Here’s to your Success!!

If you want to know more about how we can assist you or or your organization in accelerating your progress on your goals, schedule a complimentary coaching session here.

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Firing Yourself is the Answer – What was the Question?

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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.

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