Responding to Confidential Feedback
Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
An employee of mine had an exit interview with HR. In it, she told HR that I “lacked the people skills necessary to be a director.” She also asked that her opinion not be shared with me. Somehow my supervisor found out about it and told me—while reassuring me that she disagreed and believes I “don’t need to change a thing.”
I now find myself struggling in an emotional “no man’s land.” I want to crawl away in embarrassment to lick my wounds and I’m afraid of the repercussions of this negative opinion hanging out there.
I have talked to others and discovered there are those who agree with this criticism of me. I want to improve but don’t know what specifically her concerns were. I feel insecure because no one seems to be telling me their concerns directly.
How should I respond to negative feedback that was intended to be confidential?
Shot in the Dark
Dear Shot in the Dark,
Yuck. I hate being trapped. It’s so frustrating to be really motivated to take action but then to have your hands (or mouth) tied by someone else’s confidentiality commitment.
I had someone try to duct-tape my mouth recently, too. A friend said, “So-and-so’s daughter was just admitted to a rehab program (I’m changing some details here to avoid inappropriate disclosure). I just wanted you to know because I know you’re his friend, but you cannot let him know that you know as they would be very ashamed.”
So here I sit—caring about my friend, wanting to offer support, but with another friend trying to bind me into a confidentiality commitment I don’t want to keep.
I made a rule for myself years ago that I would never make an unconditional confidentiality commitment without knowing the consequences. Before people share sensitive information with me, I tell them clearly, “Please do not tell me anything you don’t want me to act on. If you put information in my head, I will do what I feel ethically bound to do afterward. Now, what would you like me to know?”
This little script helps the other person step up to greater ethical ownership themselves, rather than allowing them to engage me in a silent collusion that does nothing but generate gossip.
When my friend shared this sensitive information before I could get my script out, I immediately followed with, “I’m sorry, I’m not willing to make that commitment. You shouldn’t have shared that with me if you didn’t want me to act on it. Now, given that I intend to act on it, I’m fine giving you some time to decide what you want to do first. How much time would you like?”
I think this was a bit jarring for my friend, but I’m confident it will help him approach me more responsibly in the future.
So, how does this apply to your case? First, I’d suggest that in the future you have a similar boundary with your boss and others. Don’t let yourself get trapped into having information—including criticisms of you—that your hands are tied in addressing. Your boss shouldn’t have provided this feedback to you or she should have given you the freedom to follow up in a healthy way.
Frankly, I’m not sure how your boss got the information from what I assume was a confidential exit interview with HR. Someone needs to have a crucial confrontation with them about this unacceptable violation of process. Now that this information is in your brain, here are a couple of thoughts on how to deal with it:
Don’t outsource your self-worth. Your note sounds as though even days or weeks after getting the criticism you still feel emotionally wrapped up in it. I don’t blame you. I hate it when others think less of me than I’d like, but I’ve also learned that the first solution is not to resolve their concern but to address my own. When others’ comments about me make me want to “crawl away and lick my wounds,” I know I’m responding from insecurity rather than a healthy desire to improve. This comes from a false belief that if I make mistakes, then I am a mistake.
Your true worth—in my view—is not a function of how you do, but of who you are. Your value can’t be calculated as the mean on some 360° survey. When I am truly in touch with my worth, I find I am less controlled by other’s disappointment in me. When they doubt my competence, I don’t automatically begin doubting my worth. The truth about all of us is that we have infinite worth but finite competence. I encourage you first and foremost to do whatever works in your life to reconnect you with this fundamental awareness.
Help others tell more than they know. Once you are able to respond to the criticism from a place of confidence, I think you’ll still want to know if there is something you can improve. The barrier now is that people often know how they feel but don’t know why. They might “know” for example, that they feel uncomfortable around you, but they can’t identify concrete behaviors that make them feel this way. They say vague things like, “I just don’t trust her” or “She’s got a big ego.” They drew that conclusion through concrete experiences with you, but only remember the abstract conclusion they drew as a result. So how can you get to the facts behind their stories?
Once you help someone feel safe enough to offer you concrete feedback, you’ll need to help that person move from abstract story to concrete experience. That’s how you can help them tell more than they know. Here’s how it might work:
You: “So sometimes you see me as intimidating.”
Friend: “Yes, I mean that sounds harsh, but yes, a little.”
You: “Great. Next time we’re in a meeting together, would you please pay attention to when you’re feeling that way? And when that happens, take notes about what I’m doing. Would you do that for me? Pay attention to my phrasing, pace, volume, body language, etc. Just as you would need to if you were directing an actor to play me in a movie.”
Friend: (after the meeting). “Okay, so here’s what I noticed. Your voice rises just a little. Not loud. It’s not like you’re yelling. But the fact that you talked louder and a little faster made me feel like you thought my idea was dumb or that you weren’t interested in my opinion.”
This is hard work, but it’s the only way you can get concrete coaching about your own behavior.
Now, one last thought. As your friend gives you detailed behavioral feedback, realize that the real solution might not just be changing your behavior, but changing your motives and stories. It might be that when you are speaking a little louder and a little faster, you are in fact feeling impatient, judgmental, or condescending. And if that’s the case, be sure to work on the inside as well as the outside.
Good luck in your efforts to improve. And above all, remember that your sense of security has to come not from outside approval but from inner integrity.