Joe Hirsch

5 ways to heal the hurt of feedback

Turn the hurt into hope with a different outlook and attitude.

Getting negative feedback, especially from those we respect and trust, can quickly become an emotional train wreck that leaves us feeling hurt, helpless, and even a little bit hopeless. And when critical feedback is repeated over time, researchers have found that it can diminish our productivity, motivation and even our prospects for employment.

Ouch.

How can we turn a hurtful comment into a helpful construct? Try practicing the following five techniques, and you’ll start receiving feedback without fear — and maybe even with joy!

Receive, don’t respond

Instead of reacting to feedback right away, put some distance between you and the message. Listen to the review. Read the comments. But instead of deciding in that moment how you feel about the feedback, simply pause. Thank the person for sharing it and signal your intent to think about it later. Waiting to respond can prevent you from saying or doing something you may later come to regret.

Assess, don’t obsess

Not all feedback is valid or valuable. Consider the source, context and scope of feedback before allowing it to affect your thoughts, beliefs or actions. When trust runs lows, it might be helpful to flip the frame and examine whether the issue is personal (who you are), pervasive (how often it’s happening) or permanent (whether it can be changed). Flawed feedback hardly fixes anything.

Seek, don’t sulk

When feedback is hurtful, we naturally resist, revise and retreat. That’s why it’s so important to seek clarity from trusted sources who can help us find the signal in the noise. Asking the right questions can generate stronger insights and reveal the issues we might otherwise overlook. We can’t get better all by ourselves.

Put goals before grudges

An effective way to heal the hurt is to get goal-oriented. Rather than carry on with grievances and grudges, focus on your plan, performance and progress. The best goals aren’t just SMART, but FAST — frequently discussed, ambitious, specific and transparent. Ask yourself: What needs to change? Who can help me get there faster? How will I know when I’ve arrived? By setting new targets instead of settling old scores, we’re more likely to make our mark.

Reflect, don’t deflect

As a final measure, think about how you can close the feedback loop with the giver. This is more than just a courtesy. Sharing your goals and asking for additional input (assuming you want it) will demonstrate your credibility and boost the likelihood for future feedback. Show the giver how you’ve managed to let feedback pass through you, not by you.

Most of us remember the sting of negative feedback long after it’s delivered. But when we make way for a more thoughtful and focused response, chances are we’ll benefit from feedback long into the future as well.

Ask better questions

questions

Ask these questions to help you get the feedback you want and need.

Getting feedback about who we are and what we do is the surest way to improve. Most people would agree it’s necessary. A recent BetterUp survey found that 65% of employees want more feedback, even though they acknowledge it may be difficult to receive. Then again, the feedback we receive from managers and loved ones may not arrive in time or hit the mark — assuming it’s delivered at all.

Asking for feedback can help. Instead of waiting for feedback, we can elicit the information we need on our own terms and timeline. But the way we ask for feedback matters, too. Unless we ask the right questions, we’re unlikely to get meaningful insights about how we can do better.

To make the most of a feedback request, try tailoring your questions to your specific needs. You may be in search of clarity. Or a deeper understanding of issues. You might just want a high-level picture of performance. The most effective questions are phrased and presented with these goals in mind.

Gain clarity with “light bulb” questions

When information that’s shared with us isn’t clear, we tend to make assumptions and fill in the gaps ourselves. “Light bulb” questions can help us better understand what the feedback really means — and what it means for us. They can help uncover the real intent behind what is said and sharpen our sense of where it points.

Some examples of light bulb questions include:

  • Can you tell me more?
  • Why do you say that?
  • Is this something you’ve noticed often?

Use a light bulb question any time you need to clarify the meaning of a statement, understand the rationale behind a rating or grasp the finer points of an appraisal. Unless we make sense of the message, we can’t fully comprehend its meaning.

Go deeper with “funnel” questions

Once we begin to appreciate the feedback giver’s intent, it’s time to go deeper with “funnel” questions. Funnel questions allow us to better understand how decisions were reached and to respectfully challenge the assumptions behind them. They provide an opportunity to drill down to feedback’s core.

Some examples of funnel questions are:

  • Can you explain how you reached this conclusion?
  • Can you help me understand your reasoning?
  • What’s driving this issue?

Use a funnel question any time you are seeking a detailed analysis of feedback, especially if it’s tied to a performance review. But be selective about which parts of feedback you want to unearth. Pushing the feedback giver too hard for his or her rationale may be received unfavorably.

Grasp the big picture with “chair lift” questions

Good feedback finds a way to stay grounded and goal-oriented. It addresses current challenges but maps out future possibilities. For optimal positioning, consider asking “chair lift” questions. These questions raise feedback to a higher level where we can expand our view of causes, connections and consequences. They allow us to look at events as if we’re seeing them through a panorama, not a peephole.

Some examples of chair lift questions are:

  • What issues haven’t we considered yet?
  • Are we addressing the right goals?
  • Have we considered what the implications of this might be?

Use a chair lift question whenever you’re trying to set a broader context for feedback, establish long-term growth goals, or refine your performance targets. This over-the-horizon approach allows us to shift the feedback dynamic from the past to the future.

We shouldn’t have to wait to get the feedback we need. By asking the right questions at the right moment, we can generate powerful insights about our work and build our capacity for growth. Better feedback begins with better questions.

How to flip your feedback

Changing the frame can change the effect.

Getting negative feedback, especially from those we respect and trust, can quickly become an emotional train wreck that leaves us feeling hurt, helpless, and even a little bit hopeless. And when critical feedback is repeated over time, researchers have found that it can diminish our productivity, motivation and even our prospects for employment.

The good news? We can flip the frame on negative feedback by changing the story.

While we can’t control what happens to us, we can always change what happens next. Whether negative feedback causes us to become depleted or determined may have to do with something psychologists call explanatory style — the way we explain the things that happen to us. It’s essentially the story that we tell ourselves after an experience or encounter with others.

The stories we tell ourselves

Explanatory style takes two forms: optimistic and pessimistic. Pessimists blame failure on themselves and attribute success to external causes. Optimists do the opposite: They attribute failure to circumstances beyond their control and success to their own efforts. 

People with a pessimistic explanatory style receive negative feedback and believe that their shortcomings are simply part of who they are, while individuals with an optimistic explanatory style think about criticism in terms of growth and opportunity. 

For example, after receiving negative feedback about a sales presentation, the pessimist takes a defeatist attitude (“I’m terrible at explaining products and this will never change”), while the optimist adopts a developmental approach (“Here’s how I’ll tweak my sales pitch to get better results”).

Flip the feedback frame

How can we develop an a more optimistic outlook on negative feedback? By determining whether the negative feedback is personal, pervasive and permanent.

First, ask yourself if the negative feedback is personal. Do you bear responsibility for what’s happening? Or it is beyond your control? 

Pessimists treat failure as stable. They assume it’s a function of their own limitations and expect it to happen again. They regard negative feedback as a natural consequence of their character. Optimists think of failure as fluid — it’s more likely the result of external conditions, not internal characteristics. For them, getting negative feedback may have more to do with a set of circumstances than their personal traits.

Next, ask yourself if the negative feedback is pervasive. Is this action affecting other aspects of your life? Or is it more localized?

Pessimists tend to believe that negative events are cumulative and spill into other areas. They’re more likely to think of negative feedback as a feature, not a bug. Optimists believe that failures are isolated, not inevitable. They’re more likely to see negative feedback as a bump, not a byway.

Finally, ask yourself if the negative feedback is permanent. Are the causes or effects here to stay? Or will they only last temporarily?

Pessimists tend to adopt a fixed, permanent view and believe that bad outcomes will endure indefinitely. With negative feedback, they assume there’s no end in sight. Optimists take a more fluid, temporary view of setbacks and believe they can become starting points for growth. For them, negative feedback is a catalyst, not a crucible.

Finding a more positive perspective

In a perfect world, we’d always choose the more optimistic explanatory style and think of tough feedback as something that’s only temporary, limited in its scope and within our ability to change. Then again, critical feedback has a way of casting doom and gloom. So what can we do to flip the frame?

Here are a few tiny adjustments that can help you change how you receive and respond to criticism:

  • Impose a cool-down period: Let negative feedback sit for a day or so before responding. When the initial sting of criticism wears off, you’ll be in much better position to evaluate the message with greater calm and clarity.
  • Widen the feedback loop: Ask a trusted colleague, family member or friend to help interpret the feedback. Getting an outsider’s perspective can provide much-needed distance and detail, helping you separate facts from feelings and find the signal in the noise.
  • Revisit the issue with the giver: While we’d like nothing more than to bury bad news in the past, it’s more constructive to engage in future dialogue with the person who gave it. Let him or her know you’ve thought about the feedback and want to craft a plan of improvement. If you disagree with premise of the feedback, ask for an opportunity to present your side of the story.

We don’t choose the feedback we get, but we always get to choose where it goes. By understanding how the mind processes feedback and then consciously shifting our view, we can turn negative feedback into positive results that lead to real and lasting improvement.

Leadership is Listening

listening

Listening is the key to great leadership. Here’s how you can tune in.

Leaders do plenty of talking — delivering feedbackcommunicating goals, and managing change. But the best leaders are listeners. Good listening makes it possible to read people’s attitudes and motivations. It fosters more cooperative relationships. And it helps us detect the subtle, simmering issues that hum quietly in the background.

Some leaders are naturally good listeners. When others speak, they eliminate surrounding noise and distractions. They’re fully engaged partners. For everyone else, there’s hope: Like most skills, listening is a learned behavior that can be practiced and refined.

If you want to improve this critical skill, listen up.

Don’t ask questions with hidden agendas. 

Some questions are just statements in disguise. On the surface, they look and sound like questions. In reality, they conceal a hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing, or correcting others. When questions begin with, “Wouldn’t you agree?” or “Don’t you think?” and end with some variation of “Am I right?” you’re probably trying to get others to see your point of view, not understand theirs.

Well-crafted questions stick to the point but give room for elaboration. If a team member raises concerns about the timeline for a new marketing campaign, don’t dismiss and deflect the challenge. Instead, try asking a clarifying question — “It sounds like you’re worried about our deliverables…did I get that right?” That simple check for understanding conveys genuine interest, amplifies the other person’s voice, and allows more information to make its way across.

Be reflective, not reflexive.

When we hear bad news, there’s a tendency to react with quick, reflexive solutions. But the fix-it approach goes straight to symptoms, not causes. Reflective leaders listen for the problem beneath the problem. They don’t just focus on the “what.” They listen for the “so what?” Rather than rush to fix the problem, they step back and try to frame the issue:

  • What hope, fear or concern is this person trying to communicate?
  • What assumptions is this person making?
  • What reasoning is this person offering?

It’s helpful to buffer your response with “wait time” — a self-imposed quiet period to consider what others are saying. Hold yourself to a few moments of silence before speaking. By shifting from a reflexive to reflective approach, you’ll not only give others more space to share, but you’ll get a fuller understanding of the what, so what and now what?

Listen for the silent signals.

What we show matters more than what we say. Body language and other nonverbal cues reveal our true feelings — the silent signals that are left unspoken. Good listeners can collect additional insights simply by watching for the body’s tell-tale signs:

  • Hushed tone
  • Slumped or closed posture
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Furrowed brow
  • Tightening of the cheeks and lips

For leaders, paying attention pays off: Researchers found that people volunteered less information and spoke less articulately when talking to inattentive listeners. But when they perceived others to be more aware of body language and nonverbal cues, they provided more relevant and detailed information — even without the other person having to ask for it.

Leading is listening. If you want to increase your leadership presence, demonstrate greater empathy and show people they matter, then take stock of how you’re seeking and receiving information from others. You might just be surprised by what you hear.

Make a plan for difficult feedback

How do you make difficult feedback even harder? By not showing up prepared.

Communicating effectively takes skill and savvy, but it also requires a plan of action — an intentional effort to understand what others need and how you intend to meet and manage those expectations.

If you need to share difficult feedback and want your feedback message to land smoothly, you need a plan for success. Through my work helping leaders design and deliver feedback without fear, I’ve seen the positive effect of having a feedback “entry point,” a well-designed plan for sharing your message. And the best place to start is at the beginning.

Define your desired outcome.

It’s critical to define your goals and objectives up front. Spend time before the conversation getting clear about your larger purpose: Are you sharing critical feedback? Asking your boss for more flexible hours? Defending an unpopular decision with members of your team? Different situations demand nuanced shifts in communication, and gaining this clarity will help you convey your message with conviction.

The act of perspective taking, or seeing something from another person’s point of view, has been shown to produce numerous benefits, including increased altruismdecreased stereotyping, and stronger social bonds

To widen your view of others, ask yourself:

  • Who else will be impacted by this conversation?
  • What would others say or do if they knew about this conversation?
  • Will the effects of this conversation ripple beyond the organization?

Words take on new meaning when you’re clear about who and what is at stake. 

Anticipate what will be seen and said.

Mental preparation helps, too. Brain scans show that people use the same neural networks whether they are actually moving or simply thinking about movement. And there’s research that suggests that merely rehearsing the steps and sequences of an action can lead to concrete improvement — all the more reason to think through these conversations ahead of time.

Before entering into a highly charged conversation, try engaging in shadow practice. Imagine you’re in the moment. What are you saying and doing? How do you look and sound? Does your message seem to be landing or falling flat?

Envision yourself in prime communication form:

  • Is your voice calibrated?
  • Is your tone measured and calm?
  • Is your body language open and controlled? 

Besides establishing your presence, plan for contingencies. Draw up a list of talking points and positions others may use to counter your message:

  • What objections will be raised?
  • What evidence will be shared?
  • What experiences or expectations are they bringing to the table?

Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused, even if the exchange turns tense. Why? Because you’ve “been there” before.

Script before you speak.

NFL coaches draw up their team’s first 15 offensive plays before they take the field. They don’t wing it. If you are bracing for a particularly rough conversation, it may be helpful to play offense and script what you plan to say, especially if you’re worried about finding the right words under pressure. 

For greater impact, prepare with a feedback WRAP — a four-part feedback sequence that matches candor with collaboration. The WRAP model fosters greater authenticity and action, enlisting others as partners in the process of their own progress.

Make sure to vent first. 

Don’t let pent-up emotions get in the way of positive dialogue. Over time, these feelings build up until they burst, and the emotional leakage leaves us unprepared to communicate in top form. It’s no surprise that so many conversations quickly fly off the rails with pain, blame and shame.  

To avoid overheating, find a productive outlet for venting. Maybe it’s a trusted colleague or loved one. Or a reflective exercise, like journaling. The release will help you feel more grounded and clear-minded during tough conversations, and it might just prevent you from saying or doing something you’ll later come to regret.

While we can’t guarantee how others will take to our feedback, we can position ourselves for success with a proactive communication plan. By clarifying our goals, anticipating our moves, scripting our message and broadening our perspective, we can deliver the kind of constructive feedback that people need — and want — to hear.

Avoid feedback mind traps

To give better ratings, check your blind spots.

It’s not easy to truly evaluate someone’s performance, especially in this age of hyperconnected and decentralized work. When work is happening under many roofs, not one, how can we accurately assign ratings? Who gets credit for the product or prototype that emerges from cross-functional collaboration? And with so many companies modifying their performance management practices (and even dropping them altogether), assigning ratings to work has become a head-scratching experience.

But what if the biggest barrier to giving a meaningful measure of work…is the person giving the rating?

Whenever we talk about someone’s performance and potential, we inadvertently stumble into feedback “mind traps.” These are the subtle and subversive beliefs we carry with us anytime we make judgements of others. Needless to say, there are multiple factors that can cloud our perception and judgement. (Sometimes, it might just come down to us being hungry.) But in my work and experience, I’ve found three mind traps to be especially persistent — and problematic.

Common feedback mind traps:

  • The recency trap: Better known as recency effect, this describes the tendency to give weight and priority to what’s happening right now. With recency, we look only at one part of an employee’s story (the most recent chapter) to the exclusion of the larger narrative. This bias, which arises from our inability to recall distant moments or memories, can be especially damaging to anyone who has endured a recent struggle or setback.
  • The spillover trap: On the opposite end is spillover, the unfair and usually unfounded assumption that past experiences drive current behaviors. This backwards-facing trap locks us into a pessimistic view of others, discounts the possibility of change, and takes a fixed view of who people are, not who they are right now. 
  • The halo trap: Like its angelic name suggests, halo effect is the tendency to judge others more favorably based on the positive impressions we hold of them — leading to preferential treatment, better opportunities, and higher approval of the work they do. 

When discussing performance, we can’t avoid these mind traps altogether. But there are steps we can take to ensure that our feedback is more accurate and actionable.

Adopt a learning mindset.

Instead of presuming to know everything about another person, turn feedback into a partnership. Combining humility with curiosity can bring new insights and stronger relationships. By approaching others with a desire to learn and understand, we can release ourselves from the cognitive grip that often influences our view of them.

Acknowledge your gaps.

Being open with others about your cognitive biases can disarm and defuse a potentially heated conversation. It also telegraphs to others that you’re aware of your own limitations. This can close the perspective gap that often causes us to underestimate the effects of something we haven’t experienced ourselves.

Try countering this bias by setting your intentions up front. For example, you might open a conversation with the following: I recall a time when you took a different approach to this issue and it produced a positive result. What happened here? Taking others inside your thinking can serve as a powerful trust builder that shifts the tone of feedback from blame to inquiry.

Widen the loop. 

If you can’t trust your assessment of others, ask others to assess themselves. Every few weeks, or at the end of a project, invite your team to write their own evaluations. Some of my clients find this simple matrix helpful: Draw two columns, one marked Do Over and the other marked Do Again. In the “do over” column, ask people to make a list of mistakes and missteps they’d like to take back. In the “do again” column, encourage people to record the things that went well and deserve future consideration.

The exercise encourages both retrospective and prospective thinking. Employees find the exercise refreshing, since it gives them opportunities to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. And managers are often surprised by the insights and information it generates, providing a broader context for feedback and evaluation.

In a perfect world, we’d always give honest, actionable feedback before assigning ratings. While we can’t solve the complexities of human nature, we can gain a clearer picture of performance by looking beyond our limiting beliefs and avoiding the mind traps that hold us back. If we can do that, we might just see someone’s performance in an entirely new way.

Turn Feedback Into a Partnership

Taking a partnership approach helps both sides reach their destination.

If it seems like feedback is one-sided, that’s probably because it is.

Traditional feedback operates with a sense of hierarchy. The giver holds the power and the position. He or she spends most of the time talking and tuning. The process feels more like “tell and sell” than “listen and learn.” At its core, this type of feedback sparks fear, not joy.

In today’s post-pandemic workplace, this approach is no longer viable. Employees work with less visibility and greater flexibility than before. Tasks are more complex and interconnected. And there’s an expectation (especially among younger workers) that feedback is delivered more frequently and with a coaching outlook.

The time is right for a different mindset and message around feedback — one that turns performance into a partnership.

A new focus for feedback

Drawing on the power and principles of “feedforward,” this partnership approach can help redefine our beliefs and behaviors around feedback — from ratings to relationships, accountability to agency, and blame to contribution.

As a feedback partner, it’s the manager’s job to show others where to look but not tell them what to see. Partnership feedback is guided by powerful questions, active listening and genuine dialogue. It requires a measure of humility and curiosity on the part of the feedback giver, whose primary focus is helping others navigate towards a better understanding of their own potential and future possibilities.

Because this process can often feel winding, I think about it in terms of a shared journey between a scout (employee) and a guide (manager). Each partner has distinct roles: The guide maps the coordinates and checks the conditions. The scout chooses the path and sets the pace. The journey unfolds in three stages, and neither side can complete it without the other.

Stage 1: Summit

Performance partnerships start at the summit, the moment of peak. Managers take the lead by asking their reports about an action or outcome that left them feeling energized and excited. While it may seem counter-intuitive to begin the journey at its end, the sequence is intentional: Starting with strengths stimulates positive emotions in the receiver and uplifts, rather than upends, one’s sense of self. Unlike traditional feedback, which puts deficits at the forefront, a partnership model seeks to identify and operationalize individual assets and accomplishments.

Some of the questions manager-guides might ask their employee-scouts include:

  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • Tell me about a problem you solved.
  • Looking back a few months, what are you most proud of?

Stage #2: Trek

The next stage in this performance partnership is the trek. Having recalled and relived a peak moment, the manager-guide and employee-scout retrace the steps that made that outcome possible. As the saying goes, success has many fathers. Few people reach the top of the mountain by themselves. This is where feedback can provide a useful account of the people and conditions that contributed to an individual’s success.

Ask others who or what made this possible. It may have been the product of a quiet collaboration. Or the result of a redesigned schedule. Getting to the destination is a visible achievement. But paying attention to the trek — the process itself — reveals hidden triumphs. It reinforces the idea that good things tend to come from supportive ensembles, not individual heroics.

These are some of the ways manager-guides and employee-scouts can plot the path:

  • Did you struggle along your way? Who helped you?
  • Did I or others play a role in your journey?
  • What else might have made this moment possible?

Stage #3: Climb

The final stage of the performance partnership is the climb. Doing something one time is a moment. Doing something time and again is a pattern. To scale success, we need to focus on future actions that can help us return to the mountain top. This is the fundamental goal of feedforward: to point people towards a future they can still change and control.

Ultimately, it is the job of the employee-scout to make it back up the mountain. To promote the agency of others, a good partner offers support, but not a lifeline. It’s far more effective for the manager-guide to help describe the road ahead rather than prescribe a specific route. And by listening to what the employee-traveler needs to be successful, he or she will be in better position to support that journey and assess progress along the way.

To help others scale success, these prompts are especially useful:

  • Are your goals aligned with our business objectives and key results?
  • Where do you see yourself headed? Why?
  • Do you have the time and resources to continue your journey?

Progress through partnership

Turning feedback into a partnership not only levels the field, but it clears the way for more collaborative, constructive conversation about work. When managers act like “mirror holders,” they not only expand the way others see themselves, but they deepen their own understanding of events and actions that might otherwise remain out of view. Instead of debates over the past, feedback becomes a discussion about the future.

As a feedback model, performance partnerships don’t require major investments of time or money. They fit alongside current performance management systems. And they can produce much-needed insights about how work gets done. Isn’t it time we traded power for partnership?

A Better You (Part 3)

podcasts

Four podcasts to help you turn downtime into primetime for personal growth.

This is the final installment of A Better You, a special summer series featuring popular podcasts from I Wish They Knew, a show where leaders share big ideas that deserve more attention in about the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. (Or the amount of time they wish they had to enjoy it!)

The first edition featured great insights on discovering our hidden influence, developing a plan for productivity, growing sideways in our careers and finding that missing spark of motivation.

Last week’s edition provided useful tips on turning workplaces into communities, becoming everyday innovators, making your office less toxic and leading with consistent body language.

This week, I’m excited to share one last batch of podcasts to help you reflect and rethink as summer fades away.

Now heard in 35 countries around the world, I Wish They Knew features world-renowned business leaders, media personalities, bestselling authors and education reformers. It explores big ideas in short conversations – from learning to loss, purpose to public speaking, work to wellness, and, of course, feedback.

I hope these episodes help you become…a better you!

Build together, not alone (Pamela Slim)

To build a business or an organization, you need an ensemble. And the best way to do that is to identify your ideal customers and partners, then build together. Pamela Slim shows us how creating the “widest net” helps us operate within high-potential ecosystems, forge strong collaborations with strategic partners, and nurture relationships the right way. 

Perfect your persuasion skills (Jonah Berger)

The key to changing someone’s mind isn’t to push harder, but to push aside hard issues. Jonah Berger explores the science and skills of persuasion and why the most convincing people help others convince themselves. Berger offers practical ways to put people in control of their decisions while still guiding them to a desired outcome — from helping others let go legacy thinking to creating options to boost adoption rates.

Cultivate your confidence (Nate Zinsser)

Confidence is a skill that can be taught, improved, and applied by anyone to enhance nearly every aspect of our lives and careers. So what’s getting in our way? Nate Zinsser shares principles he’s used to help West Point cadets and elite pro athletes develop a “confident mind” — and his cognitive tools and techniques will help you turn setbacks into comebacks.

Negotiate the sweet spot (Leigh Thompson)

To get the most out of our negotiations, we need to optimize, not compromise. Leigh Thompson describes a more effective approach to finding the “sweet spot” in every negotiation and outlines practical steps we can take to maximize the value of our position. Whether you’re negotiating a high-stakes deal with business partners or a highly sensitive issue with loved ones, Leigh offers research-backed advice to help you walk away with optimal results.

New episodes of I Wish They Knew air weekly. Subscribe to never miss another wish!

For better feedback, be a mirror holder

Try to enlarge someone else’s view, rather than your own.

Getting others to accept our feedback can be challenging, especially when we have tough news to share. Deep inside the human mind, negative feedback can cause others to become defensive, angry, and self-conscious. It can weaken their overall effectiveness at work. And it can even drive them to seek out others who affirm, rather than challenge, their positive self-view.

Throw in a host of delivery problems – lack of frequency, rater bias, and high-stakes settings – and it’s no wonder why managers either dodge feedback altogether or disguise it as “praise sandwiches” that end up doing more harm than good. The result is a feedback culture built largely around evasion, deception, and, worst of all, fear.

From my work with leadership teams, it’s clear that performance management cannot simply be corrected with better messaging. It needs to be replaced with a different mindset.

How can managers help their employees improve? By shifting their approach from “window gazing” to “mirror holding.” Knowing the difference can redeem performance management — and even bring some joy to getting feedback.

Window gazing: Telling and selling

As its name suggests, “window gazing” is a process of telling and selling. Imagine two people standing beside the same window, gazing out at the same landscape. Ask them to describe what they see, and they’ll tell you two different perspectives. That’s perfectly fine. Two equals, two views.

But what if they aren’t equals at all? What if there’s a power imbalance in their relationship, like the kind that exists between manager and employee? When those views collide, only one will prevail: the one who holds the power, and with it, the “right” perspective. 

This is an all-too-common problem with performance conversations. Managers who do a lot of window gazing offer a view that’s extremely limited and lopsided. They, not their employees, are the ones who decide where to look and what to see. Because their field of view is constrained – omitting details that neither they nor their employees can easily recall – managers often lose sight of the larger landscape.

As a result, feedback formed by window gazing ends up being highly particular but severely myopic. It comes across as judgmental and picky. And because we’re prone to quickly forget what we learn, window gazing is an unreliable measure of performance, since it accounts only for what the person giving feedback can remember.

And yet window gazing remains the default setting of many managers. They approach performance management as a series of prescriptions – what to keep, what to change – based on an understanding they’ve created mostly by themselves, without much input or insight from their employees. Why should we be surprised when people treat this feedback loop with disdain and distrust?

Mirror holding: Listening and learning

The good news is that by adopting a different mindset toward performance conversations, we can change their tone and trajectory. Instead of telling others what to see, we can use our role as feedback providers to help others see more clearly for themselves. I call it “mirror holding.”

Mirror holding is the conscious act of making your view smaller to allow someone else’s view to become larger. As the one holding the mirror, there’s not much to look at – all you can see is the mirror’s opaque backside. The real view belongs to whomever is sitting across from you. The closer they look, the clearer the image staring right back at them.

Unlike traditional sit-downs between managers and employees, this approach places a strong emphasis on development and coaching, not just ratings and critique. Mirror holding produces two-way conversations that are directed by managers but ultimately controlled by employees. They are the ones who decide what’s seen and shared. They are given the opportunity to exercise greater voice and choice in how the conversation unfolds.

But make no mistake: Mirror holding does not diminish the role of managers. In fact, it gives them greater opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of their employees. Instead of acting with power, managers approach as partners – listening, prompting, and coaching their employees to define and describe their past performance and future priorities. Their job, quite simply, is to hold the mirror long enough for others to recognize what it is they’re seeing – and then take the steps to bring that image to life.

Window gazing takes in a view that cannot be changed. Mirror holding produces a view that still can.

@joemhirsch

Becoming a mirror holder

Making the transition from window gazing to mirror holding takes deliberate practice, but it’s something every leader can do with the right amount of effort and intent. Here are three practical tips to help leaders start holding the mirror:

Ask more, talk less:  

Mirror holders spend more time asking and less time asserting. Their feedback is guided by questions, not assumptions. Rather than try to force a change, mirror holders attempt to provoke an insight, tilting the feedback dynamics from power to partnership and from blame to inquiry. When leaders make their own voices smaller, they make other people’s voices louder.

Questions should be non-leading and simply worded. “Tell me about a time this quarter you felt energized” or “What helped you do your best work?” are good openers. And then let the conversation flow from there. When feedback becomes a two-way exchange, both sides end up learning more about the other.

Listen and look: 

While the goal of mirror holding is to help others see themselves more clearly, it’s also important to be vigilant about what they say – and, more importantly, what they don’t. Pay attention to the details and direction of the conversation. Does the feedback receiver seem to be holding back? Placing emphasis on certain episodes or encounters? What does that individual’s body language and tone of voice suggest? Listening for those signals and looking for those clues will help mirror holders adjust the frame for the best possible view.

As a mirror holder, it’s your job to be a first-class “noticer.” Staying attuned to verbal and non-verbal cues of others is how you’ll help them discover things about themselves that may be obvious to everyone else but them.

Shape the path:

At its best, mirror holding can build and sustain more positive and collaborative relationships between managers and employees. Having given others room for reflection, it’s the responsibility of managers to shape their path of progress. Staying with a “describe, not prescribe” approach, mirror holders should steer the conversation toward actionable improvement by asking others to imagine what future success looks like. That pushes the feedback receiver to make concrete observations that serve as the basis for concrete next steps.

But unlike the forced format of a traditional appraisal, it’s up to the individual to decide which path to take. All a manager did can do is mark the trailhead and shape the path. Ultimately, people change what they feel they can control – and by providing others with greater voice and choice in how feedback is sized and scoped, managers increase the likelihood that people will act on the information that is reflected back at them.

The best feedback helps others understand their strengths and provides the encouragement and guidance to build on those strengths. Mirror holders set the conditions for positive and lasting change. Making that small adjustment in your mindset can produce a world of difference in your message – and just might help others see themselves in an entirely new way.

A Better You (Part 2)

podcasts

Four podcasts to help you lead and live with purpose.

It’s amazing how far we can go when life stands still.

Last week’s post kicked off a month-long series on becoming “A Better You.” Featuring four popular episodes from my podcast I Wish They Knew, the round-up offered great insights on discovering our hidden influence, developing a plan for productivity, growing sideways in our careers and finding that missing spark of motivation.

Summertime is the perfect time for rethinking and reflecting. The stillness of summer provides just the right amount of time and space for self-discovery – which just so happens to be the theme of I Wish They Knew.

Now heard in 35 countries around the world, the show features world-renowned business leaders, media personalities, bestselling authors and education reformers. It explores big ideas in short conversations – from learning to loss, purpose to public speaking, work to wellness, and, of course, feedback.

Which is why I’m excited to share another batch of episodes to help you become…a better you.

Turn workplaces into communities (Christine Porath)

Is the modern workplace increasing our happiness and belonging or making us feel lonelier and more disconnected? Christine Porath has a message for our moment: Work needs to be a community where individuals share concern for one another. Christine shows that with the right amount of information sharing, purposeful practices and compassionate candor, work can flourish – and so can the people who do it.

Creativity is everybody’s business (Josh Linkner)

Creativity isn’t a hidden talent that belongs to a select few – it’s a native force that resides in all of us. Josh Linkner shows us how to become everyday innovators and turn creativity into a discipline that can be practiced and learned. Josh breaks down the beliefs and behaviors that lead to creative breakthroughs, how to develop big ideas through testing and experimentation, and how leaders can foster creativity throughout their organizations.

Make your office less toxic (Liane Davey)

From difficult bosses to annoying coworkers and outrageous clients, workplace toxins drain our energy, inhibit our work, crush our spirits and diminish our productivity. Liane Davey is here to fix that by helping us learn how to fight “the good fight.” Liane offers powerful and straightforward techniques for creating healthier conditions that allow us to do and feel our best at work and beyond.

Become a more followable leader (Mark Bowden)

The best communicators understand that how they speak matters just as much as what they say. To become truly followable, leaders need to communicate with consistency. Mark Bowden shows us how to become more followable by earning and keeping the trust of others and offers practical tips for anyone hoping to exert a positive influence on the people with whom we work and live.

New episodes of I Wish They Knew air each week. Subscribe to the show to never miss a wish!