Wednesday, August 6, 2008

“Be Honest, Does This Make My Butt Look Big?”

OK, so how would you answer this question? Here’s some options:

1. Fake deafness. Ignore the question. This, however, is only a stalling tactic, but it will buy you time to figure out how to answer.
2. Complete candor and total honestly. “Well, hell yes, now that you mention it, you could serve cocktails off that thing”.
3. Lie through your teeth. “Of course not, your butt looks just fine”.
4. Change the subject. “Hey, we better get going, or we’re going to be late!”

I don’t know about you, but I’d pick option 1, 3, or 4 every time. There’s a reason I’ve been happily married for 23 years and have never been fired. I don’t always tell the truth. Any good friend would do the same. (It’s why friends are usually the worst sources of developmental feedback.)

I was recently faced with one of those moments of truth. A manager, who I happen to really like and respect, was reading me a list of comments he’d received from a 360 leadership assessment. He was devastated by the feedback. I did my usual head nodding and empathetic listening, and was hoping he wouldn’t ask, but I knew where he was going. He wanted me to agree or disagree with the feedback. No, on second thought, I think he really wanted me to disagree with the feedback. The problem was, as I was hearing the comments, I pretty much couldn’t disagree. It was consistent with what I’ve heard and experienced (most of it – these things are never black and white).

I sat there and tried to pay attention, but part of me was trying to figure out how to respond when he asked. Sweat started to trickle down my back. Finally, the moment of truth – he asked. “So Dan, I want you to be honest with me… you know me… is this true”?

What would you do?

My response: “You don’t really want me to agree of disagree with each of these, do you?” I lucked out – he said no, he didn’t. Whew!

I told him the important thing to focus on was what to do about it, that people don’t judge us by our intentions, they judge us by our actions, and they form perceptions, and those perceptions are their reality. We needed to figure out what he was doing or not doing to create those perceptions and start making changes. Yada, yada, yada.

I felt horrible for the guy. Getting feedback that challenges how we see ourselves – that points out blind spots – can be devastating. It’s one of the least favorite parts of my job. But I know in many cases, if a leader if willing to accept it and commit to changing, candid feedback can often save a leader’s career and have a dramatic impact on those around them. It’s one of the most effective (and cheapest) ways for leaders to develop.

I had the chance to give the “gift” of feedback – and took a pass. I justified it by saying it’s not my role to judge – my role is to deliver the message and help the leader accept it and commit to change.

How about you? How would you answer the dreaded “big butt” question?


Nick McCormick said...

I think your "no comment" was viewed as a comment. At least that's how my wife sees it any time I plead the 5th!

In any case I think your approach was fine - i.e. focus on the how to change. Had you been dishonest and said you didn't agree with the feedback, he may have ignored it. If you commented truthfully on individual items, that could have shifted his focus.

With your response, You got him to focus on the solution(s).

Dan McCarthy said...

Nick –
You could be right, a “no comment” could be seen by some as “pleading the 5th”. I’ll be careful to be aware of that.
Thanks for stopping by.

Rachel - Employment File said...

What about gentle honesty? Is that an option? Or even possible?

Anonymous said...

I say, "I like big butts and I cannot lie."

Sorry - couldn't resist!

Anonymous said...

Dan, this is a tough one. On the butt question I also agree that there is certainly a "wrong" answer to that question ;-).

On the valid feedback side I think the key to any constructive feedback is to make sure that the person can understand your intentions. If you really care to help the person then I think it critical to give feedback in a way that they can use it. That means you need to give examples and be kind

"I could see how someone could interpret your actions negatively in XX situation, I know your intentions were not bad but maybe next time you might consider..".

"While I wouldn't have said it that way myself, I can understand how others might interpret XX situation that way, maybe you should ask them for some suggestions on how you might have better positioned your thoughts/ideas in a way that could be better received.."

If you can't pull this off then I think taking the 5th is the next best approach.

Having had 360 feedback myself that spanned the range of helpful to hurtful, I think the key is delivering the message in a way that it can be heard. That is if you really want the person to change vs. just want to take them down a peg.

Dan McCarthy said...

Rachel -
sure, that's another option, it's possible!

Dan McCarthy said...

Wench - thanks, always appreciate a little comic relief! this leadership development business can get waaay too serious...

Talentedapps -
good advice, as always, thanks!

Jackbuilt said...

I may be missing the point, but to offer a different, perhaps cynical, point of view, why would this person ask the question? Besides validation, I mean.

Look, I don't ask the big butt question unless I want the truth from my husband. It puts him in a terrible position and really, if I have to ask, then I haven't dusted the mirror or I know darn well that my butt looks big. In that context, why ask?

Is this leader willing to accept the feedback and commit to change, or will he keep asking his peers until he gets the validation he wants?

I guess my answer would be to honestly disagree where I could and then ask him if he could see where others may perceive him differently than he perceives himself. I think I would also ask him if he could think of specific instances that may warrant such a perception.

Mitch said...

On the first point, when I was dating my wife, early on I told her to never ask me a question where there was only one right answer because I wasn't going to ever answer the question, and I've stuck with that to this day.

On the second, I think you handled it about as well as you could, but I have to say that, me being me, we probably wouldn't have been all that good of friends if I'd thought that most of the comments were true to begin with, so it's possible I might have said something like "there's a few things there I believe are accurate, but you need to decide for yourself how you're going to handle this."