When Feedback goes Terribly Wrong

So here’s a question for you. If you give feedback to a friend or colleague, and they disagree with your perspective or don’t take it well, is the fault for the communication breakdown the fault of the feedback giver or the feedback receiver? On the one hand, many of us don’t want to hear negative feedback about ourselves and immediately go on the defensive when somebody gives it to us, even if it’s in our best interest. On the other hand, it is possible to give somebody feedback who neither agrees nor is particularly open to the feedback we’re giving.

I don't think I understand

I have had this experience during the last few weeks and the personal research shows one thing. I’m not particularly good at receiving feedback I don’t agree with and I am not good at all receiving feedback that is couched in anything that sounds like, “somebody said to me,” or “other people see it this way.” My kneejerk reaction is to respond as if the feedback giver in this case is simply not owning up to their own opinion. That, plus the fact that I can’t clarify or respond to an unnamed source, pushes a button for me that is difficult to unpush. I then become fairly unreasonable and instead of simply saying, “I see, thanks” I tend to go somewhere beyond annoyed and respond in a way that is neither particularly professional nor personally rewarding.

I honestly take responsibility for this, but it makes me think that those of us who coach and teach about giving feedback tend to always take the point of view that if the receiver of feedback is defensive, it is their problem because they aren’t open-minded enough to listen to our well-intended comment. But as I’ve experienced this a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think there is a principle we tend to ignore: The giver of feedback, rather a manager, a coworker, or a friend, has no more or less of a right to give the feedback than the receiver has to ignore it or be offended by it. The balance of responsibility goes both ways and, as I’ve preached for years, intent has very little to do with it. I don’t know your intent, I only know your behavior, and if you intended to be helpful but I took it as offensive, we have both started down a miscommunication path. If I intend to explain myself and you take it as being petty and defensive, the same thing is true.

The problem is that we communicate ourselves into the mess which means we somehow have to communicate ourselves out of it. And we tend to continue the communication about the content of the interaction rather than about the communication breakdown. So here are a few suggestions when you find yourself in this predicament.

  1. Stop the conversation about the content long enough to deal with the conversation about the communication. Falling into, “yes, but you were wrong” kinds of comments are still about the content and are going to simply exacerbate the problem.
  2. Accept that there are at least two parties involved, neither of which probably handled the situation perfectly. That means that the odds are highly stacked that you are likely to also be part of the problem, no matter which of the parties you are.
  3. Figure out what it was about the delivery or the reception that went wrong. In my case it is almost always that I don’t know when to stop talking and just let things go. In other cases it might be that the timing was off, or the phrasing was too personal. Accept that, if the other person perceives it that way, then it actually WAS that way.
  4. Stop being righteous. As I said, my problem is that I tend not to stop talking when I should stop talking. That’s because I know I’m “right,” and I am determined to make sure you know that I’m “right” and eventually concede. Feedback shouldn’t be about winning and losing, although once it feels personal, it can go there easily. Ask yourself with each comment whether or not the process is being helped. And if not…stop talking.
  5. The final one is tough, at least for me. Own your own hurt feelings and let it go. If you were giving the feedback with the best interest of the other person in mind, and they lash out at you, remember that this was always a possibility when you gave the feedback in the first place and that they are likely responding to their own hurt feelings in the process. If you feel angry at the beginning of the process, remember that the person has taken a chance in giving you the feedback in the first place. A little benefit-of-the-doubt goes a long way in both directions.

There’s an old saying about the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. There are times when the best intentions place us in an awkward, no-win situation. When you’re there, stop digging. Figure out which is most important…that you make your point or that your relationship stays whole. If it is the latter, then you might have to drop the issue regardless of how wrong you think the feedback is or how hard you were trying to help. Once the relationship is broken, it is a much harder task to repair. And in most cases, the content of what is being discussed just simply isn’t worth letting the relationship deteriorate.

Effective Leadership Presentations

One of the key success factors for leaders at all levels is the ability to communicate to others. We spend a lot of time in this blog talking about interpersonal elements of communication and leadership, but the fact remains that it is the rare leader that can avoid making some kind of group presentation. In fact, by definition, leaders have to communicate to groups of people at a time. There has been a lot of study and writing on the act of oral presentation so it would seem that there’s probably not much more we need to learn, eh? As leaders we know we need to “Tell ‘em what we’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em and then tell ‘em what we told ‘em.” At least that’s the conventional wisdom. The problem of course is that being redundant is not only sometimes very boring it is also not a guarantee that our message will have any impact at all.

Leadership Presentation

I generally have an immediate suspicion of conventional wisdom anyway. Typically it became conventional wisdom over a long period of time and is so general as to be not of much use. At the very least, conventional wisdom tends to be…well…conventional. In other words, average is not what we’re after here so perhaps we need to try a little harder. Recent evidence in brain research of participants listening to speakers gives us some ideas as to how we might make presentations to our followers more powerful. Here are three ideas for example that are not likely to be intuitive or in your basic speech workshop:

1. Focus on multiple processing: Very often leaders approach communication to groups of people as information dumps. A few charts, a bunch of numbers, and that’s about it. Then they wonder why nobody seems to remember what they said. Research however indicates that the more diversity in the presentation, not just with information but with our senses, the more likely we are to retain the information. Most speakers stick to audio and visual, but are there some ways you can bring your message alive by activity within the group. Can you pass out an object or have them engage in an activity to illustrate your point. The more ways they have to experience the information the more likely they are to retain it.

2. Be “level” with the audience: Of course we have been trained to do this through a story or joke or whatever else we throw into the introduction of the speech, but connecting with the audience is really about being a credible and trustworthy source. Be real and authentic. Avoid acting out the power position. For example, if these are employees within your company or department do you really need a formal introduction? Do your assistants really need to be visible to everybody all of the time? Come down the hierarchy for a while and really speak with your folks.

3. Tie into existing knowledge: While every presentation should have a unique component (otherwise, why are you doing it?) participants can make meaning of your discussion more easily if it is related to stuff they already know. Whether it is a continuation of an earlier presentation, connected to current events, or even product related, it is helpful to overtly tie your new information to previously understood content. The more you can help the audience make the connection, the less cognitive effort it takes for them to figure it out on their own. One thing stands out above all others when it comes to making presentations with impact. If you are not considering your audience in the process of creating your speech, you will not be as effective as you could be.

Speaking is all about the audience. If you have others who are creating your speech, make sure that they are doing it from the perspective of the receiver. No matter how powerful a leader you are, if you stand there and tell us what you think is important, without considering what is important to us and how we can best understand the information, your presentations will fall short every time.

Strategy versus Structure

There has long been a debate when looking at the effective organizational approach to change.  The question is this. For effective change to take place, does one first change the organizational structure and systems and then adapt a strategy (and human strategy as well) to fit the new structure and system, or does one start with the strategy and mindset changes and then adapt the systems and structure to fit it?

Walking the Tight Rope

This is one of those interesting leadership questions because, if you have an answer, you probably believe it is the only logical answer to have. Of course my answer is one of those amazingly frustrating answers for many people. I believe it depends on the change being instituted and the context of the specific leadership and organizational challenge.

In my opinion, it is possible for a full scale and successful change initiative to be instigated by the recognition that current systems, hierarchies and processes are either producing less than desirable results or, more likely, are not creating results quickly enough. This is a carry over from the industrial age that we haven’t quite settled yet. Systems that create efficiency and run at the lowest cost are not necessarily the same systems that create the greatest speed or quality. As I’ve written here before, the obsession with cost reduction has created many organizations that now find themselves able to do things inexpensively, but without innovation or speed to market.

On the other hand, organizations that have flat structures, few complex processes and an innovative mindset are not immune to dealing with change. Many of these innovative companies (Google, 3M, Apple) have come to recognize that their cowboy mindset worked well in good times, but did not prepare them for the more team-oriented approach that may be necessary today. Yes, these companies have had teams forever, but the kind of collaboration that is necessary now is so entirely cross functional and focused that few organizations are accustomed to it. These aren’t organizational design issues…these are internal issues. In these cases, the mindset has to change first, and the design will follow.

I believe what is most important is the manner in which the change process is approached. First of all, we should quit acting as if the “change process” is a unique and perhaps frequent stand alone event. In the current environment, change is not separate from leadership…it IS leadership. Second, for either design driven or internal driven change to work, stakeholders have to be enlisted early in the game. We have become a complex environment and diverse perspectives will provide the framework for understanding what and how change will enable the new corporate.

Finally, we have to get away from believing that there is one way to either make change happen or even to describe the phenomenon that occurs during change within an organization. We have become comfortable with approaches and theories that date back to a much more stable and industrial age. For change to work, leaders have to have open minds and hearts and be willing to understand that they don’t understand.


Manage Conflict or Suffer the Consequences

I know most of you regularly read the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health so forgive me if I repeat something you already know here. (Actually, I don’t read it either…it was a citation in a Bloomberg News story). Anyway, a group of researchers from Sweden found that those who suppress their anger in the workplace are more likely to suffer from heart attack or die from heart disease. Especially among men, the act of simply walking away or trying to ignore an anger-inducing event can be detrimental to long-term heart health it seems. So, of course, those who have reported on this story suggest that rather than walking away, the cause of the anger should be confronted fairly quickly and directly.


This is not the first study that has made this kind of link between concealed strong emotions and stress-related illness. It makes sense. If I am frustrated at work and nothing happens to relieve this frustration, then all of the physiological (and psychological) symptoms of stress will eventually have their toll. However, the point is not to share the fact that you are angry. The point is to deal with, and remove or offset, the stressor.

There is an entire generation or so that believes that health comes from the free expression of emotions. It is almost an entitlement belief—I have this emotion, I have a right to this emotion, and I have the right to share this emotion with you. The problem is that this is a very limited solution and one that has great potential to backfire. Express a negative emotion, whether it is frustration, annoyance, disbelief and the like, is almost guaranteed to provoke a negative response in the receiver. Focusing on your emotion alone creates an environment of blame and, while you may think you feel better in the end, it is rarely productive.

An alternative is to “own” your emotion but express your concern and issue. By owning how I feel about something I am recognizing that it is not YOU who made me feel this way. Your behavior has prompted something in ME that makes me feel this way, but you aren’t the holder of my emotions. You may, however, be the source—or part of the source—of the problem. With productive conflict and respectful confrontation, you can relate to your boss, peers or employees that you are angry or unhappy or upset. But more importantly, you need to address the activities, behaviors or outcomes that are prompting stress for you.

It is easier to describe productive conflict than it is to actually do it, but here is what it looks like:

1. Dialogue rather than debate. The purpose of the conversation is not to win the conversation but to come to a mutual understanding about the issues and the consequences of those issues (for example…your anger, disappointment, whatever).

2. Describing rather than dramatizing. Unleashing emotions is often an attack mode that provokes a defense and personal response. Describing your stressor in terms of what it is or what they do makes it possible sometimes to defuse the highly charged energy around a topic long enough to make headway on getting it solved.

3. Collaboration versus competition. The way we chose to express our concerns sometimes is as if we need to “win” the conversation. Winning usually means the other person has seen the “truth” and admitted that they are wrong. This approach does nothing for changing the culture to one of greater engagement in general. Collaboration, on the other hand, assumes that we are both interested in solving the issue without humiliating each other.
While these ideas are easy to read, they are difficult to put into place if they are not habitual already. The way to start is to decide one thing…for example, collaboration versus competition. Check yourself when you find that you are making a simple matter a competition. Take a minute just to reflect on whether or not this is how it should be. Small changes can make big differences.

Differing Without Dividing

Bill Barrett on Strategy
June 30, 2014



I can’t tell you how many leaders I have worked with who have a self-defeating view that competition solves everything. In a team or a company that values collaboration, competition on its own can be destructive. Stanford’s Bill Barrett provides a little more clarity on how the nuance of competition can work effectively.

Mark Fields Should Make His Own Way

The transition of leadership at Ford  in July — from Alan Mulally to Mark Fields — marks an uncommon event among large corporations: the planned, transparent and smooth succession of the top leader of the organization.

Mulally, Ford Jr and CEO to be Mark Fields

Unlike at GM  a few years ago, at Apple Microsoft or any number of other companies, the upcoming change marks a process so well defined and understood by the organization, the public and the markets, that it is seen across the board as a positive move.

The one concern that some pundits have is whether or not Mark Fields can fill the shoes of Alan Mulally, a well-recognized turn-around artist that took Ford from near bankruptcy to multi-billion dollar profits in 8 years.

In my opinion, not only can Fields not fill Mulally’s shoes, he would be well advised not to try.

Fields’ task is to bring a new direction to a stabilized, but still challenged, organization. (Ford appears to be on more solid footing than recall-riddled GM.) Fields brings different strengths than Mulally. With over 25 years at Ford, Fields has the experience and know-how to lead Ford through some aggressive challenges. He has filled high-level positions in the U.S., South America and, most importantly, Asia — which positions him as an insider with a strong world view.

Fields has also made his vision clear, most recently at the 2014 Ford Trends Conference, that Ford must be a leader in automotive consumer technology. The future Ford is as a “personal mobility” company, Fields has said.

It’s easy to talk about how dealing with issues like these is almost a luxury compared to what Mulally faced in 2006. But that’s the point of planned and thoughtful succession. The leadership needs of Ford today are vastly different than those of 2006.

Fields has nothing to prove in relation to his mentor and prior boss. If he has any luxury, it is the ability to honor his predecessor — who kept the company alive — while Fields attempts to engineer a new vision.

I’m excited to watch Fields in the next few months as he takes on this task.

I first published this article 6/30/14 on TheStreet.com. It is reprinted here with permission.