The stages of receiving feedback as a leader

1 06 2014

Giving and receiving feedback is never easy. I have recently engaged my staff in the feedback-giving process and would like to share this experience with you.

It all started when I asked the 250+ teachers in the ELT Institute where I work to provide us feedback on the teacher evaluation (appraisal, for some) process. One of the suggestions was that they, too, have the chance to evaluate their leaders, rather than only be evaluated. Fair enough!

The next step was to conduct a survey with teachers to know what exactly they would like to evaluate in their leaders. In our case, the leaders are Branch Coordinators and Deputy Coordinators, Academic Assistants (responsible for the outposts, or mini-branches in regular schools), Course Supervisors, the Heads of the Ed-tech and Teacher Hiring and Development Departments, and the School Psychologist. These are the professionals who observe teachers, provide support and orientation, and also evaluate them. The responses were analyzed and the common trends were identified. But how would we know if the items were truly relevant and the evaluation was valid?

To validate the proposed evaluation, I decided to stick my neck out and have my team, the professionals described above, evaluate MY performance and, in doing so, also evaluate the instrument. My objective was twofold: to receive feedback from my team and to set the example by being the very first to be evaluated.

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And so I created a google form with the proposed evaluation questions, all multiple-choice, and two open-ended ones, namely, three positive features in my performance as a leader and three things I needed to improve. The other open-ended item was for feedback on the instrument itself. I was at the same time excited for the opportunity to receive feedback and anxious to know how my staff evaluated me. I knew I might not be ready for the criticisms but was willing to take the risk anyway.

I sent the form to the staff and a deadline. As they are all outstanding professionals used to meeting deadlines, 85% of them (29 out of the 34 possible respondents) answered the anonymous and optional survey on time.

I was really anxious to see the results, and as I had created the form myself, I had full access to them all the time, so I took two quick looks before the deadline to see how the responses were. It’s almost impossible to resist the temptation. But since most people answered on the last day, I was only able to have a clear idea of the feedback after that. I thought I was ready for the feedback and mature to engage in immediate, positive self-reflection. Boy was I wrong!

My first reaction was to look at the graphs. The items had the options fully, most of the time, partially, and no, so the first thing I wanted to make sure of was that the fully’s outweighed the other items. What a joy and relief that they did. I wasn’t such a bad leader after all and felt like I had won the lottery!!!

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But then I went straight to the comments, and guess which ones I looked at first? The “negative” ones, of course! I was totally depressed. I felt like throwing the towel, certain that I wasn’t fit for the job and overwhelmed by the three areas in which I needed to improve, which deep inside I already knew but wasn’t perhaps ready to confirm so bluntly!

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Not fully recovered and in need of praise, my next move was to look at my three strengths as a leader. Joy took over me again! Was I really all that? How flattering! It was a relief to know I wasn’t that bad as a leader after all.

But those aspects for improvement were on the back of my mind and attracted me back to them. As I read each response again and again, a feeling of defensiveness took over me. I felt like I had to explain to my staff why I did things the way I did, that they didn’t have a clue what it was like to be in my position, that they didn’t understand what my full duties were, that I hadn’t meant what they thought I had meant when I said this and that, blah, blah, blah. I was ready for a fight, ready to call a meeting to “set things straight”.

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But then I stopped, read the praising comments again, went over the objective responses, and realized that I was going the wrong way.

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Receiving feedback is about knowing how others see you. If they see you in a way that you think is not accurate, it’s your responsibility to find strategies so they can see you in another way. Aren’t they fully aware of what your job entails? Maybe you haven’t made that clear to them. Are there hard feelings due to minor situations? Perhaps you need to establish a more open channel with them so they don’t have to wait until your evaluation to comment on them. Above all, it’s about identifying the common criticisms and the points that need to be improved and setting a goal. It’s not about being a perfect leader and pleasing everyone. No one will ever be a perfect leader and no one will ever please everyone. And if they do, perhaps they are failing as leaders in other areas!

I also realized at the end that the ones who were harsh in their comments are probably the ones who want me to succeed, the ones who really care about me. I’m more worried about the five people who didn’t respond than about the ones with the strongest criticisms!

After going through the cycle of enthusiasm – depression and hopelessness – enthusiasm again – defensiveness – self-reflection, I now understand more clearly how the teachers in my institution feel when they receive formal feedback from their students. Many times the markings are just fine, but it’s the students’ comments that hurt their feelings. “How can a student say this about me! What does he/she know?” is something we commonly hear. Well, maybe the teacher needs to explain his/her pedagogical choices to students more clearly. “How can they say I don’t give them effective feedback!” Maybe you think you are giving effective feedback, but they are not realizing that what you’re giving them is feedback. Maybe you need to be more explicit. These are just a few examples of how what we think is obvious or clear might not be obvious or clear to those we lead.

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It is not easy to be evaluated by your staff, but once you go through the stages I mentioned above, you realize how fundamental it is. You also realize your leadership skills are a work in progress and that you will always need a plan of action to improve. Sharing my experience and, above all, my FEELINGS about this process, is my very first one!!!

 

 

Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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7 responses

1 06 2014
Isabel

I think you were brave and wise enough to understand how difficult and rewarding the experience is.

1 06 2014
isabelavb

Thank you, Isabel. It was hard!

1 06 2014
Silvia Corrêa

Another very interesting topic to reflect upon / investigate, Isabela. Once again, I’ve really enjoyed reading your post of giving / receiving feedback, which is an art, in my view, whether one offers or is offered feedback. How do you say what you mean in a truthful yet positive way so as to trigger change in some way? How do you react to other people’s reactions to the feedback you offer? How do you take what might sound negative in a positive way? Well, there’s much more to handling feedback (whether positive or negative) than meets the eye, and I thought your idea of setting the example was just wonderful. Hope your project will be a very successful one.
Silvia

1 06 2014
isabelavb

Thanks, Silvia. Your questions are very intriguing. It is indeed challenging to give and receive feedback, but it is necessary. We can’t wait until we are ready because we will never be before we try. Thanks for reading the post and your thoughtful feedback.

2 06 2014
Henry W. Grant

Isabela, thank you for sharing such a challenging experiece so openly. As I think back, the first time I was in that leader receiving feedback situation it was not so tough probably because my staff was less open in their criticism… but I certainly relived the feelings of the second, when going through your text!
I couldn’t agree moere that we should be able to set the example and deal with the feedback with emotional intelligence.

2 06 2014
isabelavb

Dear Henry,
I’m glad you liked reading my reflection and that you’ve had a similar experience. It is easy to fall into the defensive mode when we’re in this sensitive situation and we have to get back on track and remember that the true purpose of evaluations is professional growth.
Take care,
Isabela

3 07 2014
Siham

Thank you for sharing such interesting experience!

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