Clumsy Feedback Is a Poorly Wrapped Gift

Harvard Business Review

People on your team offer you gifts – not just at special occasions, but all year. These gifts aren’t tangible, and they’re not wrapped up in lovely boxes with beautiful bows. These gifts are nicely wrapped in a compliment, or, more often, not-so-nicely wrapped in a criticism or complaint.

Effective leaders open these gifts, regardless of the wrapping, to learn what they are doing that’s negatively affecting others on their team. For example, when your boss says, “You did a great job on that presentation,” the compliment is the wrapping. You can go past the wrapping and open the gift to learn more by saying something like, “Thanks. I’m curious, what did I do that was great? I want to make sure to keep doing it.”

Many of us judge a gift by its wrapping, so when it’s poorly wrapped – when it looks bad, sounds bad, or feels bad, we don’t open it. If, in a performance appraisal meeting your direct report says, “My division would have hit all our numbers this year if I had more support from senior leadership,” you may ignore the comment or respond with a dismissive remark. But when you respond this way, you turn down some of the most valuable learning opportunities you can receive.

Why do we reject these potentially valuable gifts?

  • They are vaguely worded. Research shows that leaders consider negative feedback more useful if it is specific. But gifts are often purposely vague, so the givers feel that they are taking less risk. Because we equate vagueness with being less helpful, we are less likely to open the gift.
  • They come as a surprise. Gifts don’t often come with a heads-up such as, “I’d like to give you some feedback.” They just get tossed into the conversation without warning. When they seem off-topic or feel unexpected, we are less interested in exploring the gift and less prepared to respond.
  • They feel inconsiderate or threatening.  The same research shows that leaders are also less likely to consider feedback if it is given in an inconsiderate manner. A gift like, “My division would have hit all our numbers this year if I had more support from senior leadership” can seem ungrateful or sting. That leads us to respond defensively; either we ignore the gift or reject it by saying something like, “We’re here to talk about your performance, not mine.” We want our negative feedback delivered perfectly; if it’s not, we let our own defensiveness undermine our ability to learn and improve.

How do you open gifts rather than turn them down? Try these steps:

  • Notice when people say things that lead you to feel upset, surprised, or threatened. When you feel this way, there is a good chance that you’ve just been given a gift that’s poorly wrapped.
  • Focus on the potential, not the delivery. When you focus on how the gift was delivered, it’s easy to dismiss it as off-topic, ungrateful, or whiny. But rejecting a gift doesn’t make the underlying issue go away; it just prevents you from becoming aware of it and being able to address it. There is a Talmudic saying, “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” Suspend your judgment about the wrapping, and focus on your opportunity for learning.
  • Respond with curiosity. This leads you to open the gift by saying something like, “I thought I was fully supporting you, but it sounds like I wasn’t. What was I was doing – or not doing – that you thought wasn’t supportive?” When you respond with curiosity and compassion, you learn things that people were previously unwilling to discuss with you. Discussing these previously undiscussable issues enables you to solve problems that were previously unsolvable.

When you accept a person’s gift – no matter how poorly wrapped – by responding with curiosity and compassion, you are giving a gift in return. You are creating the trust needed to talk about things that really matter and that will lead to better results. This type of gift is priceless.

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