Bad Boss BS: “Why are you so defensive?”

How do you feel about feedback? A bad boss will sometimes make feedback personal. It will feel like they’re not talking about the things we’ve done, but the people we are. Good feedback doesn’t label people. Good bosses understand that if they can encourage us to adopt a growth mindset, even if we have lots of development areas, we’re capable of change and improvement. A bad boss can make it feel like we’ll never be good enough, that we’re fixed in poor performance and that we’ll probably never be good enough. So how can we use a growth mindset to counteract negative feelings that might emerge from poorly delivered feedback? And how can we develop a sense of our preferences and relationship to feedback to make sure it’s useful even when it comes from a bad boss?

Baseline, sustain, swing & recovery

There are a range of feelings and default responses that we can have to feedback that will affect how we deal with it and how useful we find it.

Baseline describes out default outlook on the world — is our glass half full or half empty? Are we optimistic or pessimistic? And do we know this preference for our boss? Understanding the default way we see opportunities will help us calibrate our reactions to feedback. It will also help us to spot times when receiving feedback might not be useful. If we’re struggling with our mood on a certain day, it’s OK to ask a bad boss to reschedule a feedback conversation. It’s likely that our baseline will make their job more difficult and the conversation less effective. Understanding our default baseline, and where we sit at any particular moment helps us understand our resilience and reactions to feedback.

Sustain describes how long we’re likely to hold on to feedback. Sustain can be a double edged sword, and we can have different default sustain levels for positive and negative feedback. Someone with a long sustain for positive feedback will have a source of pride and confidence they can dip into when times get tough. On the other hand, if you sustain negative feedback — fixating on criticism, it can be difficult to develop confidence and be happy with your performance. The ideal state is to have a quick recovery from negative feedback. This doesn’t mean you forget about negative feedback. It means you’re able to filter it, sorting for coaching and retaining a positive direction that feedback can provide without carrying negative emotions that might make life harder. If we can add a long sustain for positive feedback we’re more likely to embrace it — seeking out feedback to make us better.

Depending on whether your baseline is optimistic or pessimistic — or whether you have a growth or fixed mindset — you might be worried that sustain and recovery defaults aren’t things you can change. But they are. We can all develop strategies to improve our chances of getting value from feedback.

One simple technique to help with sustain is to make a note of positive feedback. Have a page in the back of your notebook or a file on your computer where you keep positive feedback and appreciation and dip into when you feel in need of a boost.

When you receive negative feedback that has the potential to undermine your confidence, write that down too. But make sure to also write down what the feedback isn’t about. Heen and Stone call this ‘feedback containment’. It’s one technique to stop us catastrophising feedback. Badly phrased feedback can leave us feeling like we’re not good at anything. But by putting some effort into understanding the scope of the feedback, we can contain the feedback and identify the things we need to change, alongside all the things we’re doing well.

Growth Mindset

Feedback helps us grow when we can hear it. Adopting the behaviours and outlook of the growth mindset encourages us to sift through even the most poorly delivered direction or feedback and find something useful. A growth mindset reminds us that effort and ability aren’t mutually exclusive. When we find something difficult, it doesn’t mean we’ll never be good at it. When we receive feedback that there’s room for improvement, it means just that — it’s an invitation to practice.

Bad bosses can rob feedback of the gift that it can represent. Feedback can make life more rewarding. It can unlock insights and suggest the routes to progress. Even when we have a bad boss, there are lots of tricks, techniques and tools we can employ to get the most out of feedback — even when it’s poorly delivered. And when we cultivate a growth mindset, we can even cope with a boss who doesn’t offer feedback. We can seek it out from peers and other people in the organisation. Our relationship to feedback is just that — it’s ours. Don’t let a bad boss rob you of this valuable source of information and inspiration. Developing a growth mindset that embraces feedback and sustaining the patience and resilience to sort through the information will help us develop and improve.

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