Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Responding to Confidential Feedback

Dear Crucial Skills,

An employee of mine had an exit interview with HR. In it, she told HR that I “lacked the people skills necessary to be a director.” She also asked that her opinion not be shared with me. Somehow my supervisor found out about this confidential feedback and told me—while reassuring me that she disagreed and believes I “don’t need to change a thing.”

I now find myself struggling in an emotional “no man’s land.” I want to crawl away in embarrassment to lick my wounds and I’m afraid of the repercussions of this negative opinion hanging out there.

I have talked to others and discovered there are those who agree with this criticism of me. I want to improve but don’t know what specifically her concerns were. I feel insecure because no one seems to be telling me their concerns directly.

How should I respond to negative feedback that was intended to be confidential?

Shot in the Dark

Dear Shot in the Dark,

Yuck. I hate being trapped. It’s so frustrating to be really motivated to take action but then to have your hands (or mouth) tied by someone else’s confidentiality commitment.

I had someone try to duct-tape my mouth recently, too. A friend said, “So-and-so’s daughter was just admitted to a rehab program (I’m changing some details here to avoid inappropriate disclosure). I just wanted you to know because I know you’re his friend, but you cannot let him know that you know as they would be very ashamed.”

So here I sit—caring about my friend, wanting to offer support, but with another friend trying to bind me into a confidentiality commitment I don’t want to keep.

I made a rule for myself years ago that I would never make an unconditional confidentiality commitment without knowing the consequences. Before people share sensitive information with me, I tell them clearly, “Please do not tell me anything you don’t want me to act on. If you put information in my head, I will do what I feel ethically bound to do afterward. Now, what would you like me to know?”

This little script helps the other person step up to greater ethical ownership themselves, rather than allowing them to engage me in silent collusion that does nothing but generate gossip.

When my friend shared this sensitive information before I could get my script out, I immediately followed with, “I’m sorry, I’m not willing to make that commitment. You shouldn’t have shared that with me if you didn’t want me to act on it. Now, given that I intend to act on it, I’m fine giving you some time to decide what you want to do first. How much time would you like?”

I think this was a bit jarring for my friend, but I’m confident it will help him approach me more responsibly in the future.

How does this apply to your case?

First, I’d suggest that in the future you have a similar boundary with your boss and others. Don’t let yourself get trapped into having information—including criticisms of you, even feedback at work—that your hands are tied in addressing. Your boss shouldn’t have provided this feedback to you or she should have given you the freedom to follow up in a healthy way.

Frankly, I’m not sure how your boss got the information from what I assume was a confidential exit interview with HR. Someone needs to have a crucial confrontation with them about this unacceptable violation of the process. Now that this information is in your brain, here are a couple of thoughts on how to deal with it:

Don’t outsource your self-worth.

Your note sounds as though even days or weeks after getting the criticism you still feel emotionally wrapped up in it. I don’t blame you. I hate it when others think less of me than I’d like, but I’ve also learned that the first solution is not to resolve their concern but to address my own. When others’ comments about me make me want to “crawl away and lick my wounds,” I know I’m responding from insecurity rather than a healthy desire to improve. This comes from a false belief that if I make mistakes, then I am a mistake.

Your true worth—in my view—is not a function of how you do, but of who you are. Your value can’t be calculated as the mean on some 360° survey. When I am truly in touch with my worth, I find I am less controlled by others’ disappointment in me. When they doubt my competence, I don’t automatically begin doubting my worth. The truth about all of us is that we have infinite worth but finite competence. I encourage you first and foremost to do whatever works in your life to reconnect you with this fundamental awareness. Remember that feedback helps us to grow and check out this resource if you find yourself discouraged often by feedback. 

Help others tell more than they know.

Once you are able to respond to the criticism or respond to feedback from a place of confidence, I think you’ll still want to know if there is something you can improve. The barrier now is that people often know how they feel but don’t know why. They might “know” for example, that they feel uncomfortable around you, but they can’t identify concrete behaviors that make them feel this way. They say vague things like, “I just don’t trust her” or “She’s got a big ego.” They drew that conclusion through concrete experiences with you, but only remember the abstract conclusion they drew as a result. So how can you get to the facts behind their stories?

Once you help someone feel safe enough to offer you concrete feedback, you’ll need to help that person move from abstract story to concrete experience. That’s how you can help them tell more than they know. Here’s an example of  how it might work:

You: “So sometimes you see me as intimidating.”

Friend: “Yes, I mean that sounds harsh, but yes, a little.”

You: “Great. Next time we’re in a meeting together, would you please pay attention to when you’re feeling that way? And when that happens, take notes about what I’m doing. Would you do that for me? Pay attention to my phrasing, pace, volume, body language, etc. Just as you would need to if you were directing an actor to play me in a movie.”

Friend: (after the meeting). “Okay, so here’s what I noticed. Your voice rises just a little. Not loud. It’s not like you’re yelling. But the fact that you talked louder and a little faster made me feel like you thought my idea was dumb or that you weren’t interested in my opinion.”

This is hard work, but it’s the only way you can get concrete coaching about your own behavior.

Now, one last thought. As your friend gives you detailed behavioral feedback, realize that the real solution might not just be changing your behavior, but changing your motives and stories. It might be that when you are speaking a little louder and a little faster, you are in fact feeling impatient, judgmental, or condescending. And if that’s the case, be sure to work on the inside as well as the outside.

Good luck in your efforts to improve. And above all, remember that your sense of security has to come not from outside approval but from inner integrity.

Best wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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20 thoughts on “Responding to Confidential Feedback”

  1. Ann Fisher

    Dear Joseph,

    I always enjoy and learn from reading your responses to others’ dilemmas. And as a certified CC facilitator am reminded of the power of the tools and mindset.

    I’m writing because I had somewhat of a different reaction to “Shot in the Dark’s” concern. I agree with your comments about focusing on personal security and inner integrity, and I would’ve reinforced his initiative to seek other feedback and encouraged him to leverage that for his learning and development as a leader.I would also encourage him to let go of exit feedback which has now become irrelevant.

    All the best,

  2. Kathy Becker

    This is great advice. Too many “please don’t share the information I’m going to tell you” conversations undermine trust and allow undiscussables.

  3. Sheldon

    Your comments about self-worth were great. Thank you for helping me keep the right perspective .

  4. Jill

    Joseph, what an extraordinarily insightful and helpful post! I look forward to this email every Wednesday. Thank you.

  5. Laura Moen

    Joseph, I agree with the others that your post was truly helpful and insightful. I’d also like to share an additional perspective. I think Shot in the Dark can also view this breach of confidentiality as an opportunity. Not many of us get a chance to know how people perceive what we do; and if we truly want to be more effective leaders, such information can be incredibly helpful. It is also incredibly challenging and requires courage. The breach of confidentiality here creates an opening for Shot in the Dark to ask their boss if they can have some paid hours with an executive coach. They can work with that coach to see how their impact differs from their intent and parlay a temporary embarassment into a winning solution for all involved, including themselves. Just a thought.

  6. Sharon

    I don’t see that the exit feedback is irrelevant. His feelings about it may be irrelevant, but the feedback is highly relevant, especially as exit interviews are the only place many people feel safe in offering such information.

  7. Nancy

    “The truth about all of us is that we have infinite worth but finite competence” should have been the quote of the day. Very provocative article. Thanks.

  8. Shana

    I truly appreciated today’s discussion as I have been in similar situations and it can be very difficult to learn what areas you might be able to work on improving within yourself. I believe one of the Vital Smarts resources I’ve read in the past mentioned distributing an anonymous survey so that feedback could be provided without worry of repercussion for anyone willing to provide candid feedback. This might a useful way for Shot in the Dark to gain the information they are seeking.

  9. Andy

    I almost always find some value in the posts and this one is especially valuable. As a Manager I am often put in the predicament that is described.

    I will take the phrase “Please do not tell me anything you don’t want me to act on…” and commit it to memory.

    Upwards delegation is really a problem for inexperienced Managers and your post is a great tool to add to my belt.


  10. Randy

    There is an element of this case of equal or greater importance. The supervisor stated that they would not change a thing.
    Even if the employee only perceives that a director lacks people skills, that issue needs attention. Why is this a perception or worse, reality? Sounds like the director’s supervisor needs to stop dispensing what I call “false positve reinforcement” because even the director wants to improve the relationship and people skills.
    “No one seems to be telling me their concerns directly” is a huge symptom of the problem.

  11. Sufia Amir Khan

    seems like its been written for me.

  12. Peggy

    This was timely. I recently received similar “feedback” that was not timely or specific. I took it hard, but am working to boost my self-awareness in an effort to see what I’m doing to create the perception. I like the reminder to invite the feedback by helping others tell more than they know.

  13. Mark Albee

    Thanks for the enlightening piece on confidential feedback. One part of the solution eludes me. As one ventures forth to, as you said, “do what I feel ethically bound to do afterward,” do you feel any ethical obligation to allow your information source to remain anonymous?

  14. Joseph Grenny

    That’s a great idea, Ann. I think using this as a cue and simply following it up by generating his/her own feedback process is very wise.
    @Ann Fisher

  15. Joseph Grenny

    Excellent suggestion.
    @Laura Moen

  16. Joseph Grenny

    Good for you, Peggy. All of us react with shame to criticism. Learning to get past that false message is a key to happy living. You’re off to a great start!

  17. Joseph Grenny

    Nope. I might be willing to negotiate that. But as I suggested in the dialogue I reported I had recently, I let people know that them trying to bind me into silence and my consenting to it are two different things. I would consider this on a case by case basis. What I do feel ethically bound to do is let them person know that I plan to take action on this information – as I suggested in my response.
    @Mark Albee

  18. elsy mejia-carpio

    This is a very interesting question and it is use by those employees that do not know how to have a crucial conversation with their immediate supervisors. They use the exit interview to let go their emotions they kept inside themselves.
    By saying that the Director lock of peoples’ skills, any person is able to understand that he/she has to ask others about his/her personal behavior. To be a director it is important to have peoples’ skills. How to interact with any kind of individuals at a different levels. A director have to understand others and act as he/she knows each individual working under him/her, no matter if it is a housekeeping or a manager, no different treatment should be demonstrated. Also, I will recommend to ask to those who know him/her at work and also family member to give him/her their opinion about his/her people skills without interrupting or getting upset since may be he/she will be happy or unhappy to know how others are perceiving him/her. Knowing this, getting training in those skills that need to improve will be the best resource to change other peoples perceptions.
    It is never too late to learn and to know how to improve ones skills and behaviors.
    This director should be thankful that someone told him/her his weakness and that now it is time to workout to improve his behaavioral skills for the better of the organzation.

  19. grizzly bear mom

    There is an expression “if three people call you a horse buy a saddle.” Did anyone else say that you lacked people skills? No? Forget about it. Vague complaints have little substance. Additionally most bosses leap to correcting their subordinates. The fact that yours said he wouldn’t change a thing demonstrates his confidence in your people skills. If on the other hand someone said “I feel humiliated when you called me an idiot when I forget to fill the copier” and the statement is accurate, work on your skills.

  20. Daniel

    When giving “feedback” I like to think of it as feedfoward. What can this person/I do to progress? “Can you be anymore vague than that” statements only cause people to spend their time doing a postmordem on what they perceive as a setback.

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