Monday, October 7, 2013

Are You Flying Blind?

Have you ever had an experience similar to this?  It's late in the day and your day has been spent in some very important meetings with some very important people.  Then as the day comes to an end, a close colleague whom you run into points out that you have spinach stuck in your teeth, or your zipper is down, or some other malfunction?  In essence, you were blind to the situation whereas it was clearly visible to others?

If you're like most people, immediately upon hearing this you feel mortified and embarrassed.  You replay in your mind all the people you have met since say lunch and you wonder if they noticed and what they must be thinking of you.  You also wish someone had pointed this out to you earlier so you could have corrected the situation.

Now let's reverse the situation.  Now let's say you're the one who runs into Joe and you see spinach stuck in his teeth, or his zipper undone, or some other malfunction.  And let's pretend this person is your manager or someone with whom you don't work very closely or you don't know very well.  Or say someone of the opposite gender.  In such instances, do you point such mishaps out to the other person?

If you're like many people, you feel uncomfortable, you fidget, and you silently carry on an inner battle wondering if you should tell, or you shouldn't? But in the end, you decide to keep quiet for it's too uncomfortable to give such feedback, even though it would be for the benefit of the other.  Then after you leave, you still for sometime continue to wonder if you should have said something.  On the inside you feel conflicted, wondering what you should have done.  And all along the person caries on oblivious to the impact they are having on others and themselves - classic case of Bull-In-A-Shop.

My experience is that most people find it very uncomfortable to give direct feedback, especially as it relates to our conduct (behavior), even thought it would be for the benefit of both the individual involved and for the organization as a whole.  This is particularly true where higher ups are involved, or someone say who is a highly valued team member given his/her exceptional abilities and contributions to the organization.

Why is this?  Here are 5 most common reasons:
  1. We want to be liked.  Thus we don't like to deliver such news.
  2. We don't want to hurt the person.  We fear that if they don't take the feedback well, they may disengage, or even decide to quite.  And if they did, who then will do the important work that needs to get done?  Along similar lines specially if we perceive the individual to be fragile, we fear that if our feedback is not taken well, they may hurt themselves in some manner.
  3.  We don't want to be hurt by the person.  We fear that if our feedback, no matter how well intentioned, if it is not well received, it may lead to conflict and make it more difficult to work together.  So why take a chance, why rock the boat.
  4. We feel it's not our place to say something.  This is specially so if it involves higher ups, peers, and co-workers.
  5. In the event if we perceive someone as a tough nut and as if they don't listen, or they have a reputation for shooting the messenger, we then say to ourselves "why bother, they won't change anyways".
With this said, if you want honest feedback, one great way to get it is to authentically ask and give permission to others to give you feedback.  If you do that, more people are likely to give you honest feedback, provided you listen to it without getting defensive, and you don't punish the messenger.

The other way, and a more effective way in my experience, is to have a 3rd party who is viewed as objective and neutral gather the feedback on your behalf.  This is because people will often give more candid feedback to a neutral 3rd party rather then directly to the person involved, provided their identities will not be revealed.

Whatever you do, I suggest you actively seek feedback.  For it is much better to know then to fly blind and one day crashing and burning and all the while being left wondering where you went wrong.  As I always say, feedback is a gift, and that it's better to know then not to know. So go ahead, make the ask, and then you'll be flying with your eyes wide open and thus can course correct as it makes sense.

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