Feedback is a Gift… or is it?

I was on a phone call in which a senior manager was not, as I call it, “owning the employee feedback” from his 360-degree feedback. His organization had just gone through a 360 assessment process which involved several hundred managers. After watching many of his direct reports go through the process over several weeks, it was now his turn.

While not dismal, many of this manager’s 360 ratings were not as strong as they could (or should) have been. After spending the first 15 minutes of the scheduled 90-minute feedback coaching call discussing the nature of feedback and reaction to feedback, I sensed there was something this manager wasn’t buying. I called him out on it.

“I get the sense you’re struggling with something here,” I said, to which the individual on the other end replied, “You’re right. You told me that this 360 degree feedback is a gift, but I’m having a hard time seeing this kind of feedback as a ‘GIFT,’” he stated, sounding somewhat defeated.

I asked him the question, “Did you ask for the feedback?” “Yes,” he replied. I continued with, “And did they give it to you?”

“You can see that they did!” was his quick response. “I believe my 360 feedback is valuable, but a gift? That’s taking it a little far, isn’t it?”

In my two decades of coaching on 360 degree feedback, I had never had anyone openly question the concept that “feedback is a gift.” It took me by surprise and got me thinking. How, exactly, is employee feedback a gift? I thought back to the many managers I had coached in the past and was reminded that, although many of them claimed to appreciate feedback, a fair portion of them may not have been able to see the “gift” that was possible in feedback.

“The gift they have provided to you is the gift of choice,” I told him. He listened curiously while I outlined this concept.

360 feedback opens up four options or choices

When we receive the gift of feedback, we are presented with— gifted— choices and options we did not have previously. We now have four new choices, which would not have been possible had the multi-rater feedback not been received:

1. Accept the feedback as valid, and act on it.
360 degree feedback, or most any kind of feedback, for that matter, can often be reinforcing (telling us we are on the right track) or redirecting (telling us we need to shift direction.) Either form of feedback can help us in our course trajectory when we pay attention to the feedback and choose to act on it. This may mean making a course correction or continuing to remain on the path we are already on. This is where the individual says, “You know, you’re right, and I need to change… and here’s how I’m going to do it.”

2. Accept the feedback as valid, and choose not to act on it.
While some employee feedback may be completely accurate, sometimes choosing not to act on it is just as critical as choosing to adjust our behavior to address the feedback. For example, recognizing that an employee may not be ready for promotion, a manager may choose to hold an employee back while she is developing the necessary skills. Yet, the employee may provide feedback to the manager, via the 360 survey, that indicates she feels she is not getting opportunities for advancement. The feedback is accurate, but for the employee’s own good, and for the good of the organization, the manager chooses not to act on that feedback. In this case, even though it was identified in the 360 survey, not acting on the feedback is the best course of action. However, the feedback still sheds light on the employee’s perspective and her overall employee experience. When this is the case, the manager may choose to let the employee know that her feedback was heard, was valid, and that there are reasons why the manager has chosen not to act on it.

3. Accept the feedback as invalid, and do nothing with it.
For many, this is the “default”—to discount the employee feedback as wrong, inaccurate, or invalid. At times, this may be the correct response. Sometimes, feedback from a 360 assessment is simply not right. Much of the time, however, dismissing the feedback as invalid is a simply an ineffective defense mechanism on the part of the manager. Managers who are not adept at reflecting on the accuracy of feedback often blow an opportunity for the potential self-improvement that comes as a result of that feedback. If a manager finds herself continually repeating this pattern, a good look in the mirror may reveal the feedback hit on some important blind spots.

4. Accept the feedback without judgement, and find out more.
When working with 360 degree feedback, we often notice that the feedback provided actually raises more questions than it answers. For example, a manager may learn that some people perceive her treatment of employees as unequal. The manager doesn’t rule this possibility out (it may be accurate), but has been very careful to include all employees in decision-making. According to the feedback, this hasn’t been working in the eyes of some. This feedback opens the door to even more feedback when a manager sincerely asks, “Can you tell me more? This has been a hot button for me, and I would like to continue working on it, if it’s still a concern.”

Employee feedback is a Gift

Any (or all) of the four responses above may be appropriate at certain points. Regardless, before dismissing the feedback, recognize the gift that has been given. There are now four choices or options that did not exist previously

While the manager on the other end of the phone would likely be working through the employee feedback for the foreseeable future (it was still an emotional process), he realized that he had truly been given a gift—a gift of choice he did not previously have.

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