Early in my career, my boss once came up to me after a client presentation and said, “You put people to sleep.” I was surprised. I’d thought of myself as a good presenter–I was articulate, I avoided filler words, I didn’t read off PowerPoint slides. The feedback irked me–until I began to reassess.
My boss suggested that I hear myself speak. Sure, why not? So behind closed doors, I recorded the presentation I gave earlier. It was true! I sounded boring, monotone, and much less confident than I’d thought.
No one likes being told they aren’t ready yet or good enough, and getting feedback to that effect sometimes makes us feel hurt and defensive. That response is normal, but you shouldn’t let it get in the way of receiving the feedback–in fact, it’s a good sign you need it.
According to Scott Halford, author of Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success, “Feedback indicates that an adjustment needs to be made, and the threat response turns on and defensiveness sets in.”
In essence, our brains play a trick on us by responding to feedback as a threat, when it should be considered a crucial opportunity to learn something. In fact, you may know that intuitively but feel very differently–you want to grow and evolve as a professional, yet still crave the reassurance that you’re great as you are.
But the truth is that without feedback, we’d continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. In order to lessen the threat response many of us feel, leaders need to give more regular, small-scale feedback to their colleagues and employees. Too often, we worry that offering constructive criticism will put a strain on our working relationships. Other times, managers and leaders simply don’t feel they have the time or interest in developing their staff in such a hands-on way.
But feedback is a powerful tool, and it isn’t being used enough. The behavioral statistician Joseph Folkman studied 22,719 leaders and discovered that the direct reports of managers who ranked at the bottom 10% in their ability to give honest feedback had dismal engagement scores–averaging around 25%. Those employees felt checked out of their jobs and regularly considered quitting.
By contrast, managers in the top 10th percentile for giving honest feedback had subordinates who ranked in the 77th percentile for engagement.
It’s important to remember that feedback isn’t a one-way street. Employees should “manage up” and give leadership feedback as well. This can be very uncomfortable, but it can be done if you go about it the right way. Start by politely expressing your needs and explaining what sort of oversight and resources you need from your manager in order to thrive.
If your boss is worth her salt, she’ll understand that being a good manager is also a continuous learning process. Elon Musk said, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” Done right, that process is never over.
So what did I learn from my earlier episode? Today, at every client presentation, I make sure to speak a bit louder and more enthusiastically about whatever I’m discussing. Changing your tone during a presentation does make a huge difference. And I wouldn’t have understood that had my boss withheld his advice. Feedback is a terrible thing to waste.