I get a kick out of some leaders who want to be better at “giving feedback.” Some are like seven year-olds who can’t wait to tell someone, “You got a booger hanging ow-cher nose.” The news they’re holding burns their palms until they can unload it. And yet, we want other people to be just as thrilled with our bad news as we are.

The question of how to give and receive feedback is usually near the top of leadership skills I’m asked to teach. What’s so hard about giving feedback? Certainly, fear of others’ reactions. We say, “He doesn’t want to hear it” or “She gets so upset.” We rightfully worry about how the news will affect our relationship with that person. It’s just as hard to receive it. When someone says, “May I give you some feedback?” I hear “May I trash your self-image as a competent person?” I don’t really care that it is good for me (although it is).

The fundamental problem is this: the way we usually think about feedback ignores the power dynamics that shape our emotional reactions. Much of our emotional life originates in the dynamics of survival and dealing with threat. While criticism may not appear to kill or maim, it has much in common with the experience of blunt force trauma. Both put us off-balance and can leave bruises. Both can lead to avoidance, even when the feedback is given with the best intentions.

All through primary and junior high school I was told by teachers, “You’re capable of so much more than you’re doing.” This feedback was no problem for them because they were teachers and in charge, and I was the student and supposed to be powerless. Let’s leave aside the fact that, as feedback, it was nearly useless. It was so vague I could only conclude that I should try harder (at what, I didn’t know) or simply feel bad about my profound waste of presumably valuable intellectual resources. Since, I already put lots of effort into anything remotely interesting or challenging, I wasn’t persuaded that lack of attention was a good diagnosis.

In fact, I decided my problem was that too many teachers wanted to give me feedback. Unfortunately, I figured out a solution. The last time a teacher (9th grade) told me about my unfulfilled capability, I agreed with her, expressed dismay, and invited her to help me correct my defect. This changed the power dynamic, however. She wasn’t clever enough to tell me high potential and low performance were really my problem or sufficiently insightful to create more challenging learning experiences for me. Also, she had no idea what I should do with my unfulfilled potential. The result: outside of class she avoided me the rest of the year, thus solving my “feedback problem,” while leaving my sub-par performance untouched.

The easiest way to think of power dynamics in relationships is to think how actions  tend to move us “one up” in relationship to another or “one down.” Giving someone feedback or drawing attention to the problem their actions create always moves us “one up” and defines us as more powerful than they are. At least, that’s how it feels to the person getting the feedback. No one likes to feel less powerful. If you don’t want to be making an inadvertent power play, then you have to develop a different relationship before trying to give feedback.

Once we understand the power dynamics involved, I think the issue of feedback has a relatively simple solution. If I want to give people feedback, I must ensure that I am really good, really persistent, in asking for it from them. I have to make sure that I respond to the feedback I get with appreciation and thoughtfulness; that I don’t get over-wrought and don’t feel the need to explain why they are wrong or how I’m misunderstood. Once I’ve shown I have no problem taking a “one-down” position relative to you, I’ve moved the conversation away from the power assertion of unsolicited feedback toward mutual improvement.

It also helps if I can be explicit about why I do what I do. That’s because some of the things others don’t like about my behavior are intentional and represent a choice I’ve made; but others are unintentional and I may not be aware of how others are affected. Either way, no one will receive my feedback well if I’ve not solicited their perceptions and judgments. And why should they?

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