July 15th, 2014

Performance Feedback

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.

Whenever we get feedback, whether it’s formally at an annual performance review, or informally during the course of our work, we have an excellent opportunity to observe our identifications. What do we feel proud about? What do we get defensive about? Sorting out our triggers helps us on the one hand not to fixate on the feedback, and on the other hand not to blithely dismiss it. We can put it into context and consider it thoughtfully. In this way, feedback moves from being an assertion that we have to accept or reject wholesale, to a springboard from which we can launch an exploration of our mental space, and where our eventual response falls out like one of many solutions to an equation.

Whenever we feel perturbed by negative feedback, whether it’s criticism of our strengths or weaknesses, we can engage this kind of mindful exploration. What sort of polarity is involved? What are we attached to as our ā€œIā€, what opposites are we not acknowledging, and how are we projecting that unacknowledged content onto others?

One of the most satisfying experiences in technology work is solving a core problem that in turn resolves several other outstanding issues that we didn’t realize were all connected. Resolving our projections at their origins has the same effect. Other problems go away without us having to even think about them. For example, we breathe more naturally, our tone of voice is calmer, our body language is more relaxed, we listen more attentively, and so on. Even if we aren’t able to fully withdraw some of our projections, the more transparent they are to us, the less energy we invest in sustaining them. We know at some level that they’re illusions, so our reactions are somewhat dampened ā€“ which may be all that we need to interrupt some of our unhealthy habitual patterns.

Over time, we can become savvier consumers of feedback, which is essentially a collection of stories about us. Some of them are myths, others are tragedies, and there’s always an element of comedy. Sometimes we’re cast as the hero, other times as the villain; sometimes the wizard, other times the fool. If we don’t get too caught up in the archetypes (projection), we can learn much about the storytellers. From what people say (and don’t say), we can glean insights into their priorities, values, goals, strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. We can unlock remarkable significance in offhanded remarks, discount even solemn statements that are suspicious, and take more comments at face value. Feedback becomes a powerful ally in understanding ourselves and working effectively with others.

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