Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Own the Feedback

Some time ago I was at a management training course. The group was divided into those who were managers of managers known in this course as M2s and those who were what I have been calling leads–that is managers of individual contributors–which they called M1s. I was part of the M2 group. The M1s were divided into groups of 10 or so and an M2 was assigned to each group as the Manager and another as merely an individual contributor. A couple of the M2s–myself included–formed the executive committee and were not involved in the working groups at all the first day. On the second day we changed things up and I wound up as an IC on a team. I knew I could not come into this group that didn't know me and act as the leader. It wasn't my role and it wouldn't be accepted. I tried really hard to play the supporting role.

When I arrived, the group was in some trouble. They were in the middle of wordsmithing their mission statement (this on day 2!!). To make it worse, all 10 members were involved in this and it was becoming a marathon session. In an effort to help out, I made several suggestions and tried to ask questions to point them in the right direction. I didn't tell them how to act. They could freely take or leave my suggestions. At least, that is how I perceived it.

At the end of the 2nd day there was a feedback session. Many of the members said something to the effect “I felt you were trying to take over the team.” My initial reaction was to challenge the validity of these statements. Not out loud of course, but internally. I had no intent in taking over. In fact I had been trying hard to avoid taking over. I carefully crafted my suggestions in such a way that they were not instructions, but just offerings of opinion that carried no weight of authority. If I had been actively avoiding taking over, these people must be in error in their judgement.

When the M2s gathered I shared this experience with someone who had become a mentor to me. His sage advice was, “You have to own the feedback.” What he meant was that there had to be truth in there. Even if the feedback wasn't an accurate representation of reality–I was *not* trying to take over–it was an accurate representation of their perception of reality. Something about the situation and my actions had caused this perception. I could either accept that and look for the cause or I could reject that and learn nothing.

I chose to accept the criticism and looked for the root cause of their perception. I was totally new to the situation. These people did not know me. Even though my suggestions were not intended as instructions, they were perceived that way because I was perceived as the new guy and new guys shouldn't act with authority so fast. In their minds I was the new hire and didn't understand the situation. I had built up no relationships, no human capital with them and thus had no implicity trust. I thus talked with more authority than someone in my position should have. It wasn't so much me but the position I held. I needed to act more in line with their expectations. I needed to build the relationship before giving advice.

This analysis was born out later as people gave me the feedback that I had done less to try to take over as the session wore on. In reality, I had initially been rejecting their feedback and so hadn't changed. My actions were the same late on day 2 as they were early that day. The actions hadn't changed, but the perception had. I had built up some human capital and so my actions were being perceived differently. The specific takeaway is to know your perceived position and to act within it. Perception matters. It is important to build relationships before trying to affect change.

The more general takeaway is to always own the feedback. When people say they perceive you in a particular way, that cannot be argued. The fact is, whether you intended it or not, you were perceived in that manner. The only two options are to accept the feedback and act on it or to ignore it and burn the relationship. The world is too small to go around cavalierly burning relationships. Owning the feedback means accepting that you did something to create the perception. It could be reality. It could have been that I really was trying to take over the group. Or it could be merely perceptual. I had acted in such a way so as to appear to want to take control even though I didn't. It is important to discern which of these is true because the solution is different in each case.

This is advice I end up giving often at review time. Someone gets a tough message and wants to challenge it. “But I didn't do …” or “But that's not how it really happened.” These responses are not taking responsibility for the event. They are not examples of owning the feedback. The person proffering these responses will not fix the problem because they are externalizing blame for it. The true problem lies with someone else and so they have no responsibility or even ability to fix it. My response to this is consistent. The reality is that this is the perception. If they didn't do what they are accused of, then they did something to cause someone to think that they did. Whatever that was, they need to look for a way to address it. If not, they'll be getting the same review next year and at that point it will become a trend.