Feedback: Overcome The Fear & Grow

There was once a junior supply officer in the USMC who was on a field operation in the humid and hot North Carolina spring air.  It was a stormy night and as the officer woke from a few hours of sleep, he knew that the supplies that he was supposed to get out didn't make it due to the inclement weather. He had tried his best but had come up short. Now he had to face his commanding officer to communicate that the job didn't get done. He went and received what was known as a "coming to Jesus" discussion, or what is also referred to as a "character building" event.  The supply officer endured it and unfortunately, it happened right out in front of other officers and enlisted. That junior Marine officer was me. I walked away from that experience with a very negative feeling toward feedback. It did make me want to perform better, but caused me to fear having an event like that happen again.  

As I reflected on that challenging experience, I understood that, on one hand, it is only through feedback that I could improve, but on the other hand, it just didn't sit well with me because I felt fearful of making another mistake. I felt embarrassed because my commanding officer conducted the "character building" right in front of the other Marines. My father taught me at a very young age to encourage in public and correct in private. I knew that I was not going to lead the way my commanding officer did that day. I was going to lead with the people I would one day have the opportunity to lead differently.  

Manager Tools leadership experts, Mark Horstman and Mike Auzanne talk about how the purpose of feedback should be to encourage effective behavior. They say, "Feedback that meets the purpose of feedback must come from a positive place, from emotions of love and not fear, of respect and not intimidation."  

This was an extreme example, but it makes me wonder as we sit in our offices: Are we asking for feedback?  If we know that it is the only way for us to grow as leaders, why are we hesitant to ask for it from those that lead us, from our peers and from those that we lead?  I know at times I am fearful of what I may be asking for, but I have found that there are huge benefits to giving and receiving feedback.  

As a young process engineer working for General Electric in a ceramics plant, I encouraged my manufacturing plant workers to give me feedback as I worked to improve the process through changing systems, processes and equipment. I had one worker named Patrice, who was one of my best workers. She was one of those people that really cared about the quality of her work and when she didn't do well, she became disappointed. One day, I had changed the ceramic batch supply product to reduce costs and ensured her that I had tested it and it would run through the process well.  As she began to run it, I went to my office... but not for long. I received a stern phone call from Patrice to come out onto the manufacturing floor. My heart dropped into my stomach. Although I really didn't want to go out there and I could have stayed and let them have to deal with it, I knew that wasn't the right thing to do.

When I got there, Patrice let me have it.  She yelled at me in pure frustration because the supply product was not running well at all.  It was hard to hear that type of feedback, but at that moment, my experience on the drill field in the Marine Corps kicked in, and I was able to not take it personally and was able to just listen to her.  I calmly told her I was sorry for causing her frustration and assured her that it was my fault. I had her go back to the old supply product and told her that I would do more testing before we went back to the new product.  That was tough for me to listen to her yelling and admit I was wrong, but what happened next was incredible.  It made the whole experience worth it.

The next morning, I was sitting at my desk and who walks in? Yep, Patrice. She came in quickly and sat down in the chair across from me with a body language that screamed that she was ashamed. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and apologized for yelling at me. I was amazed. I thanked her for apologizing and for giving me feedback. I felt encouraged that I had grown in understanding this "feedback thing" just a little bit more. That day, Patrice and my relationship grew a ton as our trust in each other deepened through the challenge. It was not easy and made me feel inadequate to lead at certain moments, but through it I grew more as a leader.

Are you asking for feedback? Are you seeking it out? What is stopping you? Is it fear? Pride?Position? Trash those things and get "among" your people.  Really get to know them and ask them for feedback.  Give them both positive and constructive feedback.  I guarantee it will take your relationships to a new level.  It really shows that you care for them enough to help them improve and that you are humble enough to know that you need their help to grow as well. Try it this week.