PHoto by West Point Public Affairs on Flickr

The toughest part of feedback is actually RECEIVING it. I mentioned in my last post that one reason we resist feedback is that we are conditioned to think we should somehow be perfect–no improvement needed here. Another reason is that we feel bad or crazy when we get feedback that doesn’t seem right.

When I was the head of HR at a consulting firm, I led the charge to developing a “culture of feedback.” We expected everyone to both give and receive feedback–to embrace it–and, to do so in time to use it to benefit our work. What a concept. If I know what I could be doing differently, sooner rather than later, then I would have the choice to make a change in my approach. We took it seriously. If I crossed paths with a new associate, I might ask “how are you doing so far?” The person would (looking like a deer in the headlights) likely say “OK, I think…” to which I would reply “By Friday you need to know. Go ask your Project Managers for feedback between now and then. I’ll call you Friday afternoon.”

Easy to say to say to someone else, harder to swallow for yourself.

So, one day during a firm training a consultant said to me “would you like some feedback?” I remember a jolt of energy (and saw those same headlights) but responded “Absolutely!” to which the person said:

“You invade people’s space!”

In my head, I quickly heard: What? What did you say? Me, Mary Mavis? Invade your space? I didn’t get mad, I was hurt and appalled. The person was wrong. I would never DO THAT.

After what was probably ten seconds, but felt like an hour, I asked “What do you mean by ‘invading space’?” Of course, I knew what those words meant to me. But, I followed my own advice and listened and probed for understanding.

This is a great example in particular because you can’t tell someone what you meant, not really. You have to show them. But, we try to tell. So the person attempted a description of what she was meaning. And, I said “show me” by doing to me exactly what I do.

She stood next to me and put her arm around my shoulders. I said to myself “So? What’s the problem with that?” and then said to her “What’s another example?” She pointed to a table in the back of the room and talked about when the firm’s President had visited, I sat on the table next to him–close. OK, now I’m feeling a little nuts, since I didn’t make the President sit that close to me. We were talking and laughing.

After a couple more examples, I asked her what impact those behaviors had on her. She talked about she wants to back away from me. She loses her interest in the conversation. She is distracted. Within a few minutes, I thanked her for taking the time to tell me. And, I meant it.

Here’s the deal. As hard to hear as it was, that feedback stayed with me over the next few days when I watched myself and saw a lot more of what she was talking about. I realized that not everyone would see those behaviors the same way. But that didn’t matter. Now I knew that some people do.

The feedback has stayed with me for 24 years to be exact. I’m sure that I make similar mistakes. Often when seeing a client, there’s an awkward moment when I’m not sure if a hug is appropriate. And, times have changed in 24 years so that now men and women give a quick hug and kiss on the cheek when they have a close relationship at work. Makes it complicated.

By the way, I still don’t think I “invade people’s space.” I’m just not that kind of person. But I do realize that I stand close to people, that I put my arm around people (and even hug them now), and that for some people it may feel like an invasion. Or, some other way they would describe it. If I hadn’t taken the time to ask for the facts and observations, I wouldn’t even have known what I was doing.

To keep with my baseball analogy, take a look at the picture for this post. Watching the play of a game, it seems so natural for a pitcher and catcher to stand close to each other. Or, the third base coach to be whispering to the runner within inches of the player. But the context makes it natural. And, it doesn’t mean that one or two ball players don’t prefer a little more distance.

The bottom line is that the consultant cared enough about me to give me feedback that I was unlikely to think was fun. And, it’s that kind of commitment that makes a mark in the work place. Which colleague are you committed to for whom you are withholding some important information? Make this week the one that you care enough.