—Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla
We would like to believe that everybody values receiving feedback about their skills as a leader. But receiving feedback, no matter where or how it is delivered, is an emotional process that can be loaded with embarrassment, fear, anger, defensiveness, and shame. Often these emotions are short lived, but if the emotions linger they can interfere with productivity, mood, and communication.
Coaches can support a leader and defuse a difficult feedback session by understanding why people fear and react to feedback. You are not only dealing with what is current in the leader’s world, but his or her history, how he or she is “wired,” and his or her beliefs about what feedback means. Acceptance of or sensitivity to feedback often has roots in the biological and social history of that leader. Here are some factors that can enhance or disrupt acceptance of feedback:
- A general state of contentment, happiness, and resilience appears to increase our tolerance for even the toughest feedback.
- The process of receiving feedback can trigger a normal grieving process of shock, denial, and acceptance.
- Leaders who have a longer emotional recovery time or wider swings in mood may initially be more upset.
- Some leaders may be sensitive to feedback because they see it as criticism and they may have a history of being more guarded.
- Feedback can trigger a biological fear response of “flight or fight” in some leaders.
- Beliefs play a major role in acceptance of feedback: a leader who understands that feedback is not personal will react differently than another who believes that feedback reflects a greater judgment of who he or she is as a person.
As a facilitator or coach, what do you do if you find yourself faced with a leader who starts to cry, gets angry, shuts down, or begins to get defensive when faced with his or her results? While any of these reactions can be unnerving for even the most seasoned coach, continuing to talk about the content of the LPI will not be helpful. It’s important to respond to the emotion before proceeding.
First and foremost, remember that another part of our brain takes over when we’re in a high emotional state. We are less able to process information accurately, communicate clearly, or be future oriented. So how could a consultant or coach support and respond to common emotions when providing leaders with feedback?
Oh no, there’s tears
It is ok to push the pause button when someone is distraught, and allow others to regain control at their speed. Soothing comments like “You are really upset right now” and “Getting feedback can be confusing and unsettling” let leaders know you are willing to be there with them. Be sure not to assume that you know why the person is crying. Instead wait and let him or her know to take all the time he or she needs. Stay still yourself. Your empathy and humanness will be appreciated.
Dealing with defensiveness, blame, and deflection
Defensiveness comes from a deeper level and can often be about not feeling safe. If you have a leader who is rejecting perceived negative feedback by talking about why the feedback is not valid, reflect on what you are seeing and hearing. “Tom, you have some strong emotions now and you’re not sure that what others have reported is valid or helpful to you. Is that what you are saying? . . . It may not be. Let’s talk a little more about that.”
By not confronting or calling out the defensiveness, you have indicated that you are willing to hear the leader’s perspective. It gives you greater leverage to go back to see if there is any feedback that he or she can take in. Do not push any message or agenda when the leader is defensive. Let the situation defuse with continued acknowledgment. In most cases, you will notice an opening to provide a refocus.
It’s common for leaders to get quiet as they look more deeply at their feedback. Again, make it safe by saying “I notice you have gotten a little quiet. I wonder what you might be feeling or thinking. Would you be willing to share your thoughts?” Don’t try to fill the silence with your own talk. If you can sit with them in their silence, they may feel more comfortable talking when they are ready.
Anger and intensity
This can be one of the most challenging situations for a coach and it is important that you not have your own “fight or flight” response. The anger is not directed at you. Use a neutral and calm tone to acknowledge and validate what the leader is saying. Remember that anger is a secondary emotion and underneath the anger is often fear, frustration, and helplessness. After acknowledging what the leader is saying, state the fact that the conversation cannot continue in this manner. Ask “what can you do to help yourself be in a better place to continue?”
It is helpful to have some supportive and inquiring phrases in the aftermath of a strong emotional reaction from a leader. Ask, “What feedback were you hoping to get?” or “What feedback made the most sense to you?”
As coaches, we have an opportunity to help leaders give meaning to their LPI reports. Conversations about the meaning of feedback are a goldmine. After responding to the emotional reaction, you can help leaders “right size” the feedback, bringing the power of it down to help them gain a new perspective.
Encouraging leaders to take the next steps in identifying areas of opportunity and improvement is more effective if they can see feedback as less of a personal attack and more about learning how others are affected by and perceive their actions, behavior, and decisions. They are likely to be more open to this shift to a growth mindset when they feel their emotions have been acknowledged and understood.
Supporting leaders when they are emotional can be challenging and trigger emotional reactions for us as coaches as well. That is why we need to take our own medicine and practice responding to the emotions of others. Try out role playing with a colleague to act out some of the scenarios. Give it your best shot and get feedback about how it felt from the other side.
Coaches who respond appropriately to leaders’ emotions can maximize the effectiveness of the feedback process and show leaders the value in learning from others.
Adapted from FlashPoint Leadership Consulting’s blog, Leadership Insights
Holly Seaton, Ph.D., a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge, is a consultant and Leadership Challenge® Facilitator with FlashPoint, a leading talent management and leadership consulting firm. In her executive coach and consulting psychology role, she helps leaders give meaning to their LPI feedback and move from intent to leadership action. She can be reached at email@example.com