Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The feedback fix

File:Charles Thomson. Woman with a Hammer (reversed horizontally).jpg

Welcome back to my blog! I hope you are all looking forward to the New Year.
Back at work after a break, I’m spending much of my time finalising my own and subordinates’ year-end assessments and setting objectives for the year ahead.
At this same time two years ago, I got one hell of a shock. Having sat down with a senior person to discuss a planned initiative, I got slammed with critical personal feedback which hit me like a slab of granite. It felt not only totally unfair, but the worse for being entirely unexpected and coming a source who, having stood as friend, protector and mentor for many years, had, I felt, earned the right to be trusted, even though I couldn't really believe my ears.
After the inevitable upset and walking around feeling like a tube
of squeezed-out toothpaste for a few days, I slowly began to accept most of the feedback and sought to change. I even asked for, and received at the firm's expense, personal 'executive' coaching to help me improve and, though painful, I did see benefits.
The thing is that all this fixing took an enormous amount of emotional energy and headspace, time and money. On the other hand, the volume of feedback available to me, of which a proportion can reasonably expected to be critical, is limited only by the number of people I could ask and the time taken to get it.
Throughout our early lives, the regularity of school reports, grades and parents’ evenings not even counting the constant comments and discipline we get from our parents and other family and friends accustoms us to feedback. Once in a job, every Human Resources department I’ve ever had has insisted on regular formal feedback and strongly advised additional voluntary feedback between cycles.
The choice open to me therefore is not whether to get feedback, but how to react to it. For people-pleaser-hard-workers like me (read teacher’s pet), the overwhelming urge is to (a) take all feedback as gospel (‘don’t argue with the teacher’) and (b) assume that the only humble and rational (‘nice’) response is to work hard at fixing the fault and that this is the only way to demonstrate that I value the feedback-giver’s opinion.
I find it incredibly hard to ignore feedback I know to be valid; if I could do better, I want to; if the benchmark has been raised I want to beat that one. To knowingly and deliberately ignore or refuse to improve goes against not only my personality but against everything I was taught as a child.
A less-than-averagely-egotistical male colleague at work regularly laughs at me for the amount of time I worry about perception and what others think of me. But I don’t think I worry more frequently than many other women. Most men I know, on the other hand, are much more likely to have a 50-50 approach to feedback, or to automatically convince themselves that the criticism demonstrates a fault of the giver (‘they are a total %$*!-wit anyway’).  I would love to be able to laugh distasteful feedback off as untrue because the giver is not themselves perfect! But I can’t.
Unfortunately for my fixing tendencies, just like all of you, I’m busy; I’m just too damned busy to be able to dedicate much to self-improvement over and above the constant running list of get-thinner-fitter-better-at-mothering-be-nicer-to-my-parents-budget-better-manage-my-team-better-manage-my-career-better-improve-quality-time-with-my-husband-what-have-you-done-for-charity-recently list which operates as standard.
So with extremely limited time and energy, and unlimited scope for feedback, I am forced to identify what is critical and leave the rest. To use a domestic simile, this is a bit like ironing only the right side of the duvet cover and pillowcases but not the fitted sheets (with an open question as to what would happen if I ironed nothing at all?). At work I naturally prioritise and de-prioritise tasks on an almost constant basis; why does the work I have to drop not niggle me but the fault I cannot get around to fixing guilt me out?
How strange to wish that instead of being trained to react blindly to a teacher's say-so, I’d learned instead to only work at something if the cost-benefit was positive to me! Perhaps even to deliberately choose to not do as well as I possibly could? Maybe the many tears I shed during an abortive and disastrous course in ‘weaving’ could have been saved and my effort better applied to the varied things I was already good at?
For this reason I heartily approve of (and am belatedly trying to implement) the ‘strengths’ approach (see links below and on my facebook page). It just makes sense.
But now for the real test; do I believe in my belated wisdom strongly enough to pass it onto my child early, before the adrenalin rushes of achievement and praise turn into a lifetime of misdirected effort? Or will I, for sheer ease of parenting, and for the pleasure of benign parent-teacher evenings, tell her that she has to work at all her weaknesses and that the teacher cannot be ignored? I wonder.
What do you think?