Mary was genuinely glad to see Susan, a long-time colleague and mentor. She was secretly pleased that, starting out as an intern for Susan years ago, she was now her peer in the organization. To Mary, being at Susan’s level meant that she’d finally made it.
“Thanks, Susan. Your counsel over the years is a large part of the reason I’m here. I really appreciate all you’ve done for me”.
Susan smiled. “Thank you. You made it on your own, though, Mary. It’s been a pleasure watching you succeed. Of course, you’re now in a pretty dangerous place.”
Mary was startled by Susan’s statement. “What do you mean, a dangerous place? I’ve worked a long time to get here. I think I’m finally in a position to put in place new ideas and help the organization really move forward. What could be dangerous about that?”
“One of the consequences of your new position is that people are going to look at you differently. You may feel like you’re the same person, and on the surface most of your work relationships will seem unchanged. However, in the minds of many in the organization, your new position means that your perceived ability to punish exceeds your perceived need for information. Unless you create an atmosphere in which you welcome and encourage feedback, people will stop giving it to you. One of the reasons you’ve been successful is that you listen to others and incorporate their ideas into your thinking. Along those lines, you’re very good at taking feedback. It’s not you that’ll change. It’s those who work for you. So, while they’re the ones who’ll change, you’re the one who must respond. If you don’t change your behavior, you’ll become isolated just at the time when you most need feedback.”
“I don’t understand”, Mary replied. “People seem very pleased for me, and keep offering to do whatever they can to help me be successful. I don’t think there’s an issue.”
“You’re now in a very visible leadership role. People are watching how you behave in this role. They’ve seen others in the past changed by promotions. Some are changed for the better; they use their promotion as an opportunity to better serve the organization and the people within it. Other change for the worse; they use their promotion to selfishly serve their own needs. I have no doubt you’re in the former group. Others aren’t so sure. You have to reassure them.”
“Do I just tell them that I expect them to keep talking to me and giving me feedback?”
“Setting expectations at the beginning of your tenure really does help. What makes the difference, though, is behaving in a manner consistent with your words. They’ll hear the words. They’ll see the behavior. As the old saying goes, seeing is believing. The good news is, it isn’t that hard. You simply need to demonstrate an openness to feedback. You don’t need to agree with it!”
Mary nodded her head. “Now that I think about it, you’ve always been good at that. I’m very comfortable giving you feedback or sharing bad news. I always thought it was because I was good at it! In hindsight, maybe it was because you were so open to it. How, specifically, can I do this well?”
“Here are some particular things I’ve found helpful:
Remember that feedback is just information. It can help you see your blind spots.
Breathe. Receiving feedback can trigger your “fight/ flight/freeze” reflex. You can help overcome this by breathing deeply.
Maintain eye contact with the speaker and show an open body language. We say a lot without saying a word!
Listen carefully. Hear the speaker out.
Ask questions for clarity only; not to defend or put the speaker on the spot. Try to discern the data and assumptions behind the conclusions they have shared. It’s hard to change when all you know is that someone thinks you’re aloof. It’s a lot easier to change if you know the basis of that conclusion is that you’ve skipped three recent staff meetings. Don’t explain why you missed the meetings. That will come across as defensive. Rather, acknowledge that you can understand why they would see you as aloof when you missed the meetings.
Acknowledge the feedback. And, even if the feedback is painful…say “thank you.”
Take time to sort out what you’ve heard.”
“Thank you, Susan,” Mary replied. “That is so helpful to me. Even though we’re now officially peers, I see that you’re going to continue to be my mentor. I hope someday I can repay all you’ve done for me.”
Susan smiled. “In a way, you just did.”