First-class coach: Changing abrasive behaviour

My deputy refuses to either believe or act on feedback that he's too abrasive. How do I force him to?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I've been doing 360-degree feedback with my team and having debriefing meetings with them. The problem is my deputy. His feedback from several colleagues was that he's abrasive and tends to upset people. This didn't surprise me, but he refuses to either believe it or act on it. He needs to change his style, but I'm not sure how to make him.

A: 'They're lying,' cried one participant in a recent European leadership programme on being presented with critical feedback from his colleagues. Such was the fragility of his ego and his need to be right that he found it almost impossible to take negative comments.

Like your deputy, this person exhibited one of the most frequent reactions to receiving critical feedback: denial. Other typical responses are defensiveness ('Why are you picking on me?'), justification ('I can explain') and distrust ('Someone's got it in for me'). These are awkward responses to deal with, but they're less tricky than the resistant reaction, 'That's just how I am, I can't change', and the defeatist 'You're right, I'm useless and not suited to this job'. At least with the rejections you can counter with the data, the feedback you've collected.

Much as we'd like 360s to be objective, the inputs are, in reality, always subjective and a reflection of the state of the relationship between the giver of feedback and the recipient. However, this doesn't negate the value of the process - quite the reverse. Since effective working relationships are the crux of good management and leadership, information on current perceptions is highly important.

Of course, 360 feedback that takes the form of numerical scoring appears objective: giving someone a score of 4 out of 5 seems much more rational than a qualitative comment, though the judgment it represents is every bit as subjective and just as susceptible to office politics. In practice, the personal comment is often more illuminating: 'David works hard but his communication style needs to be more succinct' is more specific - and more useful.

Since the purpose of appraisals is to improve performance, the role of the appraiser is to create the context in which the subject is a willing participant in the quest to find ways to excel. The most successful feedback sessions start with the positives: what does this person do when they perform at their best? What is their contribution to the team? Focus on these things and you get their full attention, and you're more likely to encourage receptiveness to the less positive things you have to say. Starting with the negatives puts the appraisee on the defensive.

But with your deputy, you're already past this first step and you've met with rejection, so you have to re-engage him in the process of his own development. I suggest you call another meeting with him and say you want to re-visit the results of his 360. Tell him that you know he was dissatisfied with the nature of the response and ask him if, in the meantime, he has reflected on the comments he received - and identified anything he may have done or said that created the perception that his manner is harsh.

Listen carefully to his answers - in private, he may well have accepted the gist of what was said. If he shows signs of having done so, ask him whether he has thought about what he can do to avoid this reaction in future. If he's unsure, suggest some options and check with him which of them are approaches he might adopt. Agree to review his progress in a fortnight and put the review meeting in the diary.

If he still rejects the feedback, a different approach is required. Remind him that comments on his abruptness and harshness came from several sources and are intended to be helpful information for his personal development. And, even if he feels the criticisms are unjustified, they represent current perceptions; and since perceptions are to some extent reality, he'll have to change perceptions if he's to succeed.

Then ask him what he thinks he could do to change perceptions. If he offers appropriate suggestions, the likelihood that he'll follow through and change his behaviour is much greater than if you tell him what he ought to do. If he remains obdurate, you'll have to be clear with him that, though he has reached deputy level, he'll never achieve a full leadership role if he's unable to listen to critical feedback and adjust his behaviour.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk

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