There’s an endless amount of advice available for how to give tough feedback effectively, but very little on how to receive it well. One person who learned how the hard way is Gail Hollander. Gail has been in the advertising business for 25 years, and has worked in several of the most prestigious agencies in New York. She’s helped grow successful brands in several industries, and delivered some of the most recognizable ads on television today.
Gail’s role through most of her advertising career has been in account management. That means she’s the one who meets with the clients, understands their needs, develops a communication strategy, and explains to her creative department what kind of ads to produce for them. So the people in the creative department have the good fortune of dealing with Gail most of the time. Gail, by contrast, has to deal with as many as a dozen demanding, quirky, and sometimes challenging clients at a time.
One client she recalls was more problematic than most. No matter how good her team’s ideas were, they were never good enough for him. He would yell and scream and throw his hands up in the air during their meetings. And no matter how hard she tried to explain her point of view, he never seemed to understand, let alone agree with her. She described it as being like a chimp trying to talk to a lion. Both very capable people, but they just didn’t speak the same language.
He wanted Gail off the account. And since he was the paying customer, he knew he would probably get his way. All he had to do was call the director of client services at the agency. That’s the person whose job it is to assign agency personnel to client teams.
The ironic thing was, at this agency, the director of client services was Gail Hollander. When the call finally came in, she wasn’t surprised. It was inevitable. But it was her job to listen—patiently and empathetically—to the client as he detailed his list of reasons why he wanted her off the team. And to be sure, this guy was no more tactful and gracious in his description of her performance than he was in their meetings.
In any other setting, Gail would have respectfully disagreed with his assessment of her performance, and defended her positions. But he didn’t call to complain to Gail Hollander, his account manager. He called to complain to Gail Hollander, the director of client services. That’s who she was as she was listening. And when she honestly and objectively assessed the situation, she had to agree that she was not a good fit for this client. She removed herself from the account and placed another person in the job.
Most of us will never have to be in that awkward position of listening to someone complain about us right to our face as if we weren’t even there. But that’s unfortunate. Because it also means we don’t have the opportunity to listen to that feedback, objectively, as if it were directed at someone else.
The lesson is this: When you receive feedback—especially negative feedback—it’s easy to become defensive and emotional and blame others for your own shortcomings. When the feedback is about someone else, however, it’s easier to understand, accept, and determine what kind of changes are likely to make it better the next time.
Of course, it’s impossible to become completely detached and unbiased when receiving feedback about yourself. But try putting yourself in Gail’s situation. When you’re getting negative feedback, think of yourself as the director of client services for the agency of you. Assess the feedback as if it were for someone else—someone you work with and have an obligation to coach and mentor. How would you advise your twin self to take the feedback and use it to change for the better?
If you took every piece of feedback that way, imagine how much you could improve. And you could do it without even having to fire yourself.
Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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