Global Leadership Development + Executive Coaching

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Grownups, Feedback & The What

I live in a professional world where grown-ups frequently receive anonymous feedback. I’ve learned a lot about adult behavior by observing how people at all levels of an organization, some with seven- and eight-figure incomes, react to their reports.

At the outset, the feedback receiver is encouraged to pay attention to the “what” of the message, not the “who” gave it. The premise is that there’s value to be derived in the comment, regardless of who said it. 

This is wasted breath.

Every adult I’ve ever given 360 feedback results to goes straight to guessing who said it. The instinct is to determine who said what so they can decide if the comment has merit. If they think it’s person A, they take it seriously. If they think it’s person B, they can write it off as irrelevant. They do this even if person B’s comments are a gold mine of insight. 

So, it’s been fascinating to watch how DC and the rest of the country react to the New York Time’s anonymous op-ed article. Our governing and policy-making adults are behaving no differently than their corporate counterparts. Here's the pattern:

  1. First, everyone wants to be held blameless. Feedback reports invariably include comments that reflect that we’re less than perfect. I’ve yet to see anyone enjoy receiving “constructive” feedback. Even if they say they do, they don’t. It stings and we don’t like it.

  2. Nonetheless, the mature leader wants to know how to use the information to become more effective.

  3. The less mature leader finds reasons the feedback doesn’t actually pertain to them. They offer defensive rationale to prove they are innocent. 

  4. The more mature leader is able to grasp that their positive intentions don’t automatically translate into intended effects they have on others. They seek to align their actions with desired intent. This is where the juice is.

  5. The less mature utterly miss this linkage. In fact, they actively work against it: they expend energy faulting everyone else. The other person clearly “took it the wrong way.” 

  6. The least mature become obsessed with discovering who gave the comment. And they relish the idea of payback. 

What’s been dismaying for me is to see the obsession with finding out who wrote the op-ed article. Speculation about the intent and the character of the author(s) has essentially become the story. 

In other words, there’s no value in the message since we don’t know who wrote it. The focus has been exclusively on the “Who.”

What if we paid attention to the “What”? What if we assumed that it’s worthwhile to consider the content of this particular piece of feedback, even if it’s a message we didn't want to hear?

Because that is where the juice is.

Lori Brewer Collins