Coach’s Challenge for 3/3/13 “Feedforward”

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge is about the usefulness of feedback and how we can use other people’s observations of our behavior to help us in our professional development.

Think about the last time you made a presentation in front of other people. How well did you do? How many times did you say “um” or “like” (sentence fillers that when repeated too frequently can send the wrong message to the audience)? Did you just stand there like an inanimate object? How did your voice sound? Was it high and squeaky or so low and quiet that others couldn’t hear you? What about your content? Did you rely on PowerPoint to do the presentation for you? And were your slides so detailed that your audience was completely bored after the first one?

We all know what a shock it is to hear our voice played back to us from a recorder. It’s even worse to see ourselves on film or video. Is that what I really look like to others?

Most of us are under the impression that we’re so nervous when presenting in front of others that we act differently from how we do in our day-to-day interactions. But studies show that when we’re “acting” in front of others, our actions and behaviors are very similar to how they are when we’re communicating normally with others. It’s hard for us to see, but we rely on certain patterns of communication. We use them everyday, and many have become habitual.

Long ago, I realized that many of my behaviors were invisible to me. I would communicate something to a colleague in a meeting and think I knew what I’d said. But later I would be surprised to find out that what I thought I said and what he or she heard were different. I recall one such meeting when I was talking with one of my direct reports. As I was talking, she began to give me a funny look. Her brow began to furrow, and she looked nervous. I remember thinking, “I’m just giving her information, why is she looking so nervous all of a sudden?” When our meeting was over, she left the room quickly, obviously wanting get out of there. Later in the day, I called her and asked if she’d come back to my office. She looked worried when she came to my doorway. After she sat down, I asked her what I might have said that made her so nervous in our earlier meeting. She was hesitant to answer me. I explained that I thought I had just given her some information regarding a process. There didn’t seem to be anything I said that should have been disturbing to her.

She finally said, “It’s not what you said but the way you said it. You seemed to be so irritated with me. I could tell by the tone of your voice that I’d done something wrong, but you never told me what it was. You just kept going on and on about the process, and yet, based on your facial expression and your tone of voice, I knew you were unhappy with me. It made me nervous that you weren’t telling me what was wrong with me directly. I didn’t understand why you were hiding how you really felt.”

I was shocked. Her impression of my behavior was not what I had intended at all. The truth was that right before our meeting, I had been driving to the office and had gotten stuck in traffic. I wanted to stop for a cappuccino before getting to the office, and because of the traffic, I was unable to do that. By the time I arrived at the office, I was irritated and missing my morning coffee treat. As I poured a cup of bad office coffee, I remember thinking, “I hope this isn’t an indication of the rest of my day — traffic delays and bad coffee, ugh!”

Five minutes later, I was in my meeting with her. I was irritated, and I’m sure my facial expressions and tone of voice reflected that. I was behaving like a five-year-old who hadn’t gotten the treat she wanted. What surprised me later was to realize that my team member saw all of this as her fault, and my behavior had communicated something totally different than what I had intended.

Our inability to see the impressions we make creates a great deal of miscommunication between people. We think we’re acting in a certain way, but if we could actually see ourselves communicating, we might see that what’s coming across to the listener is a completely different message.

Once I knew why my team member was so uncomfortable with my communication, I had an opportunity to tell her why I was irritated. I mentioned the traffic and the cappuccino, and she immediately smiled and said, “Oh, I’m so relieved. I thought I’d done something wrong and couldn’t figure out why you weren’t being honest with me. And,” she exclaimed, “I know exactly how you feel when you don’t have the right coffee in the morning. I’m a complete bear if I can’t have my latte before I get here.”

The usefulness of feedback from others in a business context cannot be overstated. Without the observations of others, we really have no idea how we’re coming across. We can’t observe our own behaviors like others can. With honest feedback from others, as hard as it can be to hear, we can begin to see how we impact the people around us. We can see why we’re often misunderstood and why others react to us in the way they do

But (and this is a BIG BUT) none of us enjoy getting feedback. No matter how it’s framed, we don’t react well to constructive criticism. Even when someone tries to break it to us gently by saying something like, “I’d like to share some constructive feedback with you. Is now a good time?” The normal human reaction is, “NO! It’s never a good time.”

In my recent coaching training, I learned about something called “feedforward.” Marshall Goldsmith defines it as “feedback that’s forward-looking.” For example, when giving feedback, I could say, “You’re not delegating enough responsibility to your subordinates.” This is a statement that describes what you’ve done wrong in the past. That same statement framed as feedforward would sound more like, “Going forward, you could distribute more of your workload to your direct reports so that you’re less bogged down.” In addition, asking team members how they would like to proceed encourages them to describe what they can do to effect this change.

Asking for feedforward from others gives us a great opportunity to discover how we impact others with our behavior. Plus, rather than focusing on the past, it focuses on the future. The intention is to help us improve our behavior going forward, not because we’re wrong or stupid but because all of us have behaviors that are not particularly useful in a work context.

Requesting good, honest observations from our teammates has multiple benefits for everyone. Asking for feedforward helps us be open-minded to what others have to say, and we have an opportunity to make a behavioral change. By offering observations about others, we help team members improve, and we become invested in the changes as we share our thoughts. In this type of exchange, both people have a chance to create a more trusting relationship going forward. Through feedforward, we can explore how to improve things and send a message to teammates that, from this point forward, we are invested in each other’s success.

This week, try asking for some feedforward from your teammates. Ask a fellow teammate what he or she observed about you in a meeting you both attended. Or you could ask a team member in advance of a conference call to pay special attention to your tone of voice and your messaging — did he or she think that others understood what you were trying to say? How about asking for some behavioral suggestions, such as how you might be more articulate at the up-coming status meeting or how you might share more information with others over the next month?

I used to have a boss who often asked me what he could do to improve. I remember how unusual I thought this was. We met every week to talk about the status of projects, any challenges I was having with my team, and generally, how I was doing. When we were just about done, he would always ask, “What can I do to help you be more successful? What can I do to be a better boss?” I remember how uncomfortable his question made me at first, but after a while, I got pretty good at sharing my observations of his behavior and even made suggestions I thought would help him. I never realized how important his question was and what a difference it made in my ability to share feedback with others.

This week, try experimenting with feedforward and see what kinds of suggestions you receive — as well as give.

Have a good week,

Kathleen

 

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