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Posted by Philip on 16 May 2013, 12:46 pm in , , , , ,

Negative feedback: when things go bad

A commenter on my last post rightly pointed out that, in some situations, "confrontation is likely to result in ... someone vulnerable, usually the person offering the critique, however justifiable, getting a knuckle sandwich." Hopefully, things will rarely get that physical but, it's true, negative feedback, however carefully prepared for and framed, isn't always taken positively.

As I replied, I had planned a follow-up post about things going wrong for sometime in the future, but given the comment I thought I'd write it sooner than later.

First up, I failed to clarify that, for the last post and this one, I am writing from a leadership perspective. I am assuming that, as someone in a leadership role, I am giving feedback to a subordinate (excuse the authoritarian term), a colleague or someone senior to me but who respects me in my role.

I agree with the commenter that power differentials are unfair, but the reality is that they exist. Sometimes you are simply the wrong person to give feedback. The challenge then is to find an ally who can bridge the power imbalance.

Some things I've observed that contribute to negative feedback going pear-shaped are:

1. Projection

This most usually happens due to gender and/or age, but can also be triggered by ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. If the person has bad history with someone of whom I remind them, they'll project that experience on me and discount my comments as bullying or criticism.

2. Ego

It takes humility to hear negative feedback as generous or at least neutral. If someone's ego is dominant as a result of too much or too little self-confidence, they will become invariably defensive and deny the validity of what I am saying.

3. Power dynamics

As discussed above, if I'm in a role where the person with whom I'm communicating has little or no respect for me, I won't be heard. Much better then to seek out somebody else to deliver my message. This can occur in either direction, that is, if the feedback giver is seen as powerless (oppressed) or powerful (oppressor).

4. Readiness or timing

Sometimes, it's just the wrong time or the person is not ready to hear the feedback, be it for personal, circumstantial, social or environmental reasons. I've experienced that, after a bad reaction to negative feedback, the person comes back having processed it and says they can see my point. The reaction was simply that — a reaction in the moment. As Edward de Bono says, if a new idea isn't met with a howl of protest, it probably isn't a good idea. 

Recovering from feedback gone bad

Most importantly, I've learnt to not take it personally if someone takes feedback badly. It's easy to berate myself for not saying something in the right way, at the right time, etc. Sure, I reflect on what didn't work and how I might do things differently, but I know that it takes two to tango and, sometimes, the relationship dynamic just doesn't work.

I at least attempt to apologise and say I didn't mean to offend (if the person gets angry) or upset the. The apology may or may not be accepted but someone else's acceptance of an apology is not my responsibility, it's theirs — mine is only to offer it.

Finally, I will ask, either at the time or in a few days depending on their reaction, whether they'd mind discussing it again. If they're willing, great; if not, I'm inclined to leave it (unless the relationship is a contractual one — eg. employer/employee — or one of moral responsibility, like a young person in my care).

Remember, the act of offering negative feedback is one of generosity and caring — if we didn't care about the person, we wouldn't bother — but the responsibility to receive it in that way is the other person's. Like any gift, the risk of offering it is that the person will choose not to take it. 

Better to have offered and not to have had it taken in the intended spirit, than not to have offered at all.