Feedback: Getting it and How to Receive it
© 2006 P. Arthur Stuart
Updated July 2, 2020

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One of the biggest mistakes I made was not getting feedback in my early years. Had I been able to get the proper feedback, I know I would have been more successful in building interpersonal relationships, reducing stress (mine and others,) finding an inner peace, and achieving my goals. Someday, I will put together my prospective on management and leadership, which I will call "Surviving In Spite of Oneself." I know I did, that is, survived in spite of myself. I was just lucky.

Throughout my life, I've worked at jobs I could do well, in many cases better than others. I surmise this because my supervisors, peers, and subordinates told me so, even though some of them were not to particularly fond of me. If there's no gain to be gotten, from those that would rather do without you, one can probably conclude that they're telling you the truth. On a few occasions, I received feedback anonymously, which I will speak to later.

My problems were, I didn't know when to shut up, what was appropriate to say, and how to deal with people in formal and informal interactions. My behavior and manner were not conducive to building good relationships. When it came to subject matter, I felt I had a strong knowledge of, I made sure I got my words in. I learned, which should have been obvious, people don't want to be wrong and more important they don't want to know it. I think it's important to know if you are wrong, even when it hurts. With today’s technology, many opposing views can be resolved quickly with smart phones. Now, when I have an opposing view and it can’t be resolved on the spot, I will research it. If I’m wrong, I will go back, apologize, and tell the person they’re right. If I’m right, I just keep it to myself. What I’m saying is, I want to know what’s right, not who’s right. One small note, I’m referring to things that are not opinions or faith based, like politics and religion; I’m referring to things that have a definitive answer.

While serving as an engineering instructor, for Fleet Training Group, I was honing my knowledge by taking professional military engineering courses. I forget the exact item, but I know it had to do with steam turbines and the type of blades they used. I was commenting to a Machinist Warrant about what I read in a highly respected and authoritative naval engineering text. He said that I was mistaken and what I said was impossible. The next time I saw him, I told him I had reread it again to make sure I had read it correctly, the first time. I then informed him, if he really wanted to know if what I said I'd read was correct, I'd show it to him the next time he visited my home; I added, all he had to do is ask. He assured me that he wanted to know and would remind me; he never did, although he visited many times afterwards.

Equally important is knowing your weaknesses—real or perceived. Sometimes we can figure it out by ourselves but there are times when feedback helps a lot.

I was a little like Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), in "As Good as It Gets," without the blatant rudeness and quirks. I kept my private life very private and was reluctant to listen to others. Let's do business and get on with it. Although, I'm still reluctant to share some of my very intimate dilemmas and thoughts, I'm much more receptive to others. I think that over the years I've mellowed a bit and have gained some of the skills needed to relate and be empathic with others.

Side note - some food for thought: I once heard or read that there are three people in each person: one - is the way you see yourself, two - the way other see you, and three - the way you are.

One of my personal insights occurred at a meeting that I had with my staff. I don't remember the details of the meeting. It was at this meeting that I asked if they had anything they would like to say. One of them, a brave soul, spoke up and accused me of being stuck up. I was surprised and shocked to say the least – I wanted to be liked and tried to be friendly. At least, that's what I thought I did. Then I did something right. I didn't get mad or openly upset, I was disappointed but kept it to myself. I just asked, "Why do you say that?"

In summary, she said, "When you walk by me and I say hello or good morning, you ignore me and act like I'm not there." Several of the other staff worked up the courage and supported her. She was right, but I didn't do it on purpose or because I was stuck up. I told the staff that what happened was true. I would walk by people without responding to their greeting or comments. I apologized and explained to them, when I'm in very deep thought, I am unaware of the world around me – it just doesn't exist. I'm in a kind of trance, I explained. When I'm aware of the world I will exchange greetings with everyone, even with people I dislike intensely – it's simply good manners. Now, I tell people that are likely to encounter this behavior from me, what they can expect and why. I haven't been accused of being stuck up since, they just laugh at me instead.

I became good friends with one of my supervisors after we had both been reassigned to different naval commands. I was stationed in San Diego and his assignment was Hawaii. On one of my trips to Hawaii, as a naval inspector for the Naval Board of Inspection and Survey, I called him, and we met. During that visit, I asked him why he had graded me number two out of three.

He said he had graded me number two because I had more equipment/machinery failures then number one.

I thought about this for a few minutes and then asked him, "What equipment/machinery did number one have?" He was puzzled. I also asked him, "If number one's performance was better, why had he assigned me as the departments administrative officer – which is a substantial job?"

Number one's job was the Damage Control Assistant. I went on to tell my friend, "Number one had a division consisting of about twenty personnel. He had a total of gas and electrical equipment that could be purchased for under a hundred thousand dollars. Typical equipment was emergency gas pumps and electrical ventilation units, shop tools and hand operated fire and rescue equipment. If the emergency gas or electrical equipment failed, it was one of my divisions that had the responsibility to fix it."

I was the ship's electrical and auxiliary officer, with a staff of over fifty. As such, I was responsible for the ship's entire electrical and interior communication systems, heating and ventilation systems, ship's boat propulsion systems, and a myriad of other machinery. I would estimate the equipment and systems my divisions were responsible for would be valued in the tens of millions.

Anyway, I pointed this out to him and he agreed. He said he never considered what we had just spoke about and then he said he was sorry. He told me had he considered all this, he may well have reached a different conclusion.

I'm not saying that number one didn't deserve to be number one, I'm just saying he didn't deserve it for the reasons given. My friend concurred, and I believed he was sincere. He added, "Perhaps you should have asked before I prepared the evaluation, better yet you should have periodically asked about your performance." It was a Good point, If you want to know, you should ask.

Side note - some more food for thought: A good supervisor will discuss performance with an individual before preparing an evaluation. The better supervisor will do it in sufficient time to allow for improvement, even when skills just need a little tweaking. The best supervisor will do performance discussions routinely. They will tell you the good, the bad and, at times, the ugly when it takes place; you always know where you stand with them.

Since then, I have asked and received feedback on many occasions. I'm really glad I did. One of the most traumatic and in the end beneficial, was when I read an article on 360 degree evaluations. Essentially, you ask all your co-workers, supervisor(s), peers, subordinates and if you like, family to fill out a performance evaluation. The evaluations were anonymous. I arranged for the evaluations to be given to a person that all the people trusted to keep their identity secret. The person compiled the comments and grades into a single document. I was devastated and went into a state of shock and depression that lasted several days. I couldn't sleep or eat. It's really hard to be called names and told that you're incompetent – particularly when you work hard at being the opposite. After my mourning period, I formulated the below strategies based on some of the things I learned.

I need to point out that there were about twenty people that prepared the evaluations. More than ninety-five percent of the comments were positive, and the grades were high. In general, my work and leadership were thought of as good and appreciated. Although there were only a few negative comments, made by two or three individuals, I (mistakenly) focused on them. I have since observed, from evaluations I've prepared and as a facilitator of growth seminars, where chosen individuals prepare profiles for the attendee, that there is a phenomenon of reacting to the few negative comments among the many good ones. I know now that the negative comments were made, for the most part, by subordinates that resented me. What I failed to do at the time was determine if they were true, a perception, or malicious.

If you should have an evaluation like mine (the 360 degree) or attend a seminar that has people prepare your personal profile from their perspective, I would suggest that you read the positive first, then the negative and then go back and reread the positive. Before doing anything, give them some thought and yourself time to accept/understand them. Basically, keep things in perspective.

I learned a lot from that experiment – about myself and others.

My guide to analyzing feedback is a six step process. Do one item at a time:

  1. You need to determine what is being said.
  2. Who is saying it?
  3. Is it accurate?
  4. Is it important?
  5. What can you do?
  6. Is it worth it?

Let me explain how I do a review using the guide.

Step One – determine what is being said. For example – I was accused of being dishonest. I found this out when my supervisor told me that Mrs. X thought so. I think I'm honest and I was totally surprised and taken aback. Why would anyone say something like this? So, I asked him why.

He said, "You take two hours for lunch and everyone else takes one."

I asked him if he thought I was cheating on my work time.

He said, "No, I know you come in early and leave late. You also work weekends and nights when required. However, I think you should shorten your lunch period."

I wanted to say to him, "Why didn't you defend me. I come in before our maintenance personnel (7 AM to 3:30 PM) which starts at seven and leave after our administrative staff (8 AM to 5 PM) that leaves at five. I worked nearly every weekend during the summer, as well as holidays during projects and respond to a numerous emergency calls, after hours, usually in the middle of the night. I average fifty or more hours a week working, and I don't get overtime." However, I kept my mouth shut and adjusted my hours. At the time I had a supervisor that didn't support or back his people in situations where he would have to take a side; he was more interested in being liked. The point is that they didn't think I was a thief or that I lied. So, the person, by their own standards, without considering any of the above data, felt I was abusing my authority.

Step Two – who said it. In the above example I found out that it was our secretary. My supervisor and I shared a secretary. I know she didn't care for me and would report everything she could that she thought would undermine me. Actually, she did a lot of reporting on everyone, which undermined the whole department. She was like the boss's assistant in 9 to 5. The sorry part about it was how the supervisor readily received it. Anyway, knowing who it came from gave me a better understanding. In the end I didn't consider it important and forgot about it quickly. In most cases, when I received negative feedback, I could surmise one or two people or the clique that said it. By doing this I could develop a sense of value related to comment or perception.

Step Three – Is it true. Sticking with the example, "No." However, for the sake of argument, let's say yes. It's important to determine if what is being said is true, partly true, or false. If it's true or partly true move on to step four. It takes a lot of effort to admit to one's self that something is true, particularly if it is not complementary. If it's not true, then you need to know why there is this perception. Again, it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to step out of yourself and attempt to see your behavior from another's point of view – particularly if you know they don't care for you. If it is just malicious, ignore it. That will just piss them off more. One last point here, the perception that you play too much golf, fish too often, stay up to late, etc., maybe of little value because the person, say a coworker, giving the feedback may not know what else you do. Sometimes, you need to know who said it, because it is helpful -- although, not always necessary.

Step Four – Is it important. In the example I gave I would say, "No," even though I made an adjustment. If the adjustment had required any real effort, I would not have done anything. By important, I mean is it important to you. A supervisor or friend tells you that you need to dress better if you want to move up and get promoted. Let's assume that they are giving you accurate feedback. If you want to get promoted, then improving and meeting expectations of the organization are needed. If you don't care, then changing is not needed.

Step Five – What could you do. In the example above, you can go out, spend some money, and improve your wardrobe to meet the expectations of the organization. In my case I could have ignored it. I could have confronted the person. I took the easy way out and adjusted my lunch hour. I didn't think it was worth dealing with. The examples so far have been pretty simple but most good feedback requires significant behavioral changes. And that doesn't come very easy.

Step Six – Is it worth it. Behavioral change takes a lot of time and effort. And it is exceedingly difficult to do. After you determined the importance and what you have to do, the easier parts, you need to decide if it's worth doing.

In 1991 I read the book, "Seven Habits of Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey. In the book the author asked questions I could not answer. So, I guess this is what motivated me and where I began my real soul searching. I don't agree with everything Mr. Covey had to say but there was enough to get me thinking. I looked very carefully at my behavior, did the everyone attacks Art evaluations and formulated my personal philosophy. On my homepage I have put the results of my efforts. It is my "Avatar." I use this guide whenever I have new and/or tough decisions to make, as well as doing my best to insure my writing meets these standards.