Receiving Feedback; How a Coach can Help

While many people might enjoy the concept of receiving feedback, this is usually on the proviso that the feedback is given in a way the receiver is comfortable with – the form, formatting, and context of the feedback itself are just as important as the receiver’s relationship to the person giving them the feedback.

To receive feedback is to be judged and, be it on our behaviour, personality, productivity, or work performance, when we feel judged it is natural to feel like we are about to be ‘kicked out’ of the proverbial ‘tribe’.

No one likes to be told that they are wrong, or that they are constantly making mistakes, and, if the person giving the feedback is someone the receiver doesn’t trust or get along well with, they may even disregard some, or all, of the feedback.

I am going to present my points today in the form of a case study, pulled together from various experiences with my own clients and featuring a fictional character named Jean, an experienced supervisor, having managed many teams within the same industry for years at the supervisory level.

Jean had recently changed jobs, having found work as a supervisor in an affiliated industry. One day, while having a discussion with a team member about something that had gone wrong on a recent project, her manager called her over to their office and told her that he wasn’t happy with how she handled that discussion.

This caught Jean off guard, she was simply doing her job in much the same way she had successfully done for years – she wasn’t being rude or aggressive towards the team member and even though she was new to the industry, it wasn’t too different from her previous line of work, she understood much of the technology and workflows, and was quickly catching up on the rest.

Her manager told her that she was being too directive when engaging with team members and was thus crushing their collaboration – he pointed out that she had done this before, and that it was why the team struggled to get along with her.

Jean was beyond taken aback by this, because she was sure that things were going well. Then her manager made a recommendation; “You must be nicer when working with the team.”

This situation put Jean into fight/flight/freeze mode, and she froze. In freezing, she fell into a state of shame, guilt, embarrassment, vulnerability and, perhaps the worst, self-blame. When people receive this kind of feedback, they don’t normally conclude that their actions are at fault, they conclude that they are the fault.

“How do I solve this?”, “What part of this do I take on?”, “How does this interact with who and what I am?”, “How does this compute with what my role in this organisation is?”

Jean was stuck and it is this kind of ‘stuckness’ that calls for a coach.

As a coach the first part of my job is to create a safe space for my clients – a ‘no judgement zone’ where there is no need to hide from anyone or anything, and where my client, Jean, in this case, can freely express their thoughts and work things through.

In this safe space, a number of questions will run through a client’s mind and it is a coach’s job to mediate these questions and their answers.

The big one I’d like to draw attention to is: “Should I even take this feedback? Who is this person? Do they know me well enough to give feedback at all?”

When being given feedback, the last thing anyone should ever do is dismiss it on the basis of who it was that gave it to them – just because you don’t like/trust/get along with them, doesn’t mean you cannot learn from what they have to say.

It is important to set the emotional text aside and to draw out the essence of what is being said; in Jean’s case, ‘be nicer’ doesn’t mean much as it is neither qualitative nor quantitative, but she could still learn from the conversation – she was unaware the team wasn’t getting along with her and she didn’t know she was hurting collaboration. Jean (or anyone else in her situation) could then ask themselves if maybe there were factors they had overlooked in the past that might have contributed to these issues.

A change in workspace could be one factor – in her previous jobs she had always had a separate office and had to call people in for planned one-on-one meetings, but she now shared an open-plan office with her team, meaning she was giving feedback in a more constant/ongoing manner.

Alongside instant dismissal of feedback, it is important not to directly countermand it; Jean could question differences in company culture and workflow, she could ask her manager for more clarity regarding what is expected of her (there may be some part of the new company’s supervisory training that she had missed, being that she was already an experienced supervisor), and to avoid future confusion she could ask her manager to clarify what they mean when they say/do certain things.

Jean, for her part, went on to have a meeting with her team, opening the floor to frank discussion about who does what and how team members communicate; this worked for most of the team, but for some the damage had already been done, and a coach was needed in order to perform a Strengths Test and help prevent future clashing.

The feedback that Jean received was not perfect, but half the process of receiving feedback is in how you respond to it – Jean’s initial response, freezing up, was also not ideal, but with a coach she was able to work through the situation and achieve an ideal outcome.