Taking it in stride
Negative feedback can sting. Here's how to bounce back stronger than ever
BY KATE ROCKWOOD
Adrian des Rotours, PMP, couldn't help but dwell on the lone criticism. To take his career to the next level, Mr. des Rotours was told by a manager that he would have to change the fact some people thought he was a bit of a lone ranger who could sound harsh. For Mr. des Rotours, the remark temporarily erased all of the manager's positive feedback.
“I'd just gotten a very good performance rating, a good annual bonus and a higher salary, but that negative feedback pulled down my morale,” says Mr. des Rotours, now service delivery manager at PMI Global Executive Council member Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Buenos Aires, Argentina. “My first thought was that my co-workers were ridiculous and wrong, but I had to remind myself: We are what people perceive, not what we think we are.”
It's easy for project practitioners to blow one bad comment out of proportion—or want to dismiss it altogether. A 2015 survey by TriNet Perform and Wakefield Research found that nearly half (47 percent) of millennial workers leave a performance review feeling like they can't do anything right.
Yet the ability to put negative feedback in perspective and attack the root cause of the problem can help project managers create an action plan to improve their performance—and boost their careers. Becoming more engaged, rather than retreating, often leads to better business outcomes as well, according to a 2015 Gallup report.
When critical feedback heads their way, savvy project practitioners know better than to shrug it off. These four steps will help reveal the positive in a negative comment.
“I'd just gotten a very good performance rating, a good annual bonus and a higher salary, but that negative feedback pulled down my morale.”
—Adrian des Rotours, PMP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Buenos Aires, Argentina
47% of millennial workers leave a performance review feeling like they can't do anything right.
Source: TriNet Perform and Wakefield Research 2015 survey
Step One: Be Receptive
Emotions can run high during reviews, but staying calm and collected in the face of criticism helps to better process tough love, says Ann Zis, PMP, human resource information system analyst project lead, Adecco Staffing, San Francisco, California, USA.
“As a project manager, part of the foundation of the profession is continuous improvement, so you want to be open to hearing how you can do your job better,” she says. “Feedback is a gift.”
Ms. Zis recommends taking notes during reviews and check-ins. A written record can prevent mild comments from morphing into severe criticism in the recipient's mind later. “It's common for people to be so focused on what they're going to say in response, so it's easy to miss what's being conveyed,” she says.
Being prepared to rebut a negative review—whether by gathering supporting materials or brainstorming an improvement plan—starts with preparing to truly listen to what the other person says.
“I usually request upfront to break any performance review meetings in two, with a gap of at least a day in between,” says Suhaib Taqvi, PMP, project manager, Genix Ventures, Melbourne, Australia. Knowing there will be time scheduled for him to respond allows Mr. Taqvi to focus on absorbing the feedback during the first meeting.
“As a project manager, part of the foundation of the profession is continuous improvement, so you want to be open to hearing how you can do your job better.”
—Ann Zis, PMP, Adecco Staffing, San Francisco, California, USA
Step Two: Don't Resist
Reacting to negative feedback defensively is natural. If a manager criticizes estimation skills, the first instinct is to rally a list of reasons others were to blame for those project estimations missing the mark. When a mentor questions a communication style, it's easy to point fingers at another teammate who made collaboration so difficult. But deflecting responsibility can create a missed opportunity to learn valuable lessons.
“One of the first projects I handled was delivered on time and within agreed benchmarks, but the value it generated to the client was significantly affected by their limited focus on managing organizational change in related business areas,” says Mr. Taqvi. “My manager had an informal catch-up with me, telling me how important it was to prioritize the overall goal of the project and to cross the so-called boundaries if it would benefit everyone.”
At first, Mr. Taqvi bristled. But he quickly realized that dwelling only on what he had done right—hitting all project milestones—missed the bigger picture. By reviewing the project again, he identified several opportunities when he could have taken more steps to escalate issues and helped the change initiative deliver more business value.
“I've tried to keep that big-picture, value-driven approach on every project I've worked on since,” he says. Now he periodically evaluates whether the project is on track to deliver business value. “That shift wouldn't have happened if I'd resisted the feedback.”
Since being told to prioritize the overall project goal, “I've tried to keep that big-picture, value-driven approach on every project I've worked on.”
—Suhaib Taqvi, PMP, Genix Ventures, Melbourne, Australia
Step Three: Tailor the Response
Project practitioners typically field feedback from a variety of sources—managers, mentors, teammates and clients—each of whom has a different perspective. Keep that vantage point in mind while weighing how to respond.
“Especially if the organization has an immature project management environment, a negative comment may actually stem from a person's lack of understanding of the project requirements or actual project process,” says Laurianne van Zyl, PMP, project manager, Vast Networks, Cape Town, South Africa.
For instance, when one department manager wanted to place a large order for equipment that would be used across a portfolio of projects, she made the offhand comment that Ms. van Zyl needed to plan better, because the supplies weren't already on hand.
“The truth is, the department manager had no understanding of our dependencies, timelines or processes,” she says. And as large orders only happened sporadically, she also hadn't informed the project team about the intention to place order with sufficient notice. Rather than take the comment to heart or defend herself, Ms. van Zyl explained the process and the details of the design inputs that are required before equipment requirements can be confirmed and an order can be placed. It was an eye-opener for the department manager—and improved their working relationship on future projects.
“It takes a lot of patience and practice, but I've learned to listen to the feedback from the other person's perspective and then, when I can, react from a place of education rather than defense,” she says.
“It takes a lot of patience and practice, but I've learned to listen to the feedback from the other person's perspective and then, when I can, react from a place of education rather than defense.”
—Laurianne van Zyl, PMP, Vast Networks, Cape Town, South Africa
Step Four: Find a Way Forward
Moving from comment to concrete plan of action takes some work, but for project managers well versed in execution, it's a familiar task. Supervisors or mentors might have created a list of steps to take to improve, but don't shy away from making suggestions and soliciting additional feedback.
At least two-thirds of employees who work with their managers to set work priorities and goals are more engaged at the office.
Source: Gallup, 2015
“Some conversations may be difficult. It might be tempting not to want to extend a discussion longer than necessary, but you could be doing yourself a disservice,” says Ms. Zis.
Embracing feedback can lead to better performance. The Gallup study found that at least two-thirds of employees who work with their managers to set work priorities and goals are more engaged at the office.
When Mr. des Rotours took time to process the “lone ranger” comment, he saw an opportunity to improve his people skills. The feedback motived him to improve his active listening, expand his relationship circle and increase his ability to show weaknesses with others. For each area, he picked goals that were specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound (“SMART”).
“Attending soft-skills trainings and reading books and articles give us the required tools to start our improvement journey,” he says. Then, ask teammates for more feedback and try new tactics with a lot of trial and error to determine which are most effective.
Checking in regularly with a manager can help gauge what changes work and help fine-tune a practitioner's skill set. Circling back about progress also demonstrates a commitment to taking feedback seriously. “I always encourage two-way communication with your reporting manager,” says Mr. Taqvi. “Speaking freely and proactively is the best way to make sure you're not taken by surprise when performance reviews happen again down the line.” PM
“Attending soft-skills trainings and reading books and articles give us the required tools to start our improvement journey.”
—Adrian des Rotours, PMP
Employees are much more likely to be engaged when managers actively support their development—and focus on strengths.
Employees who see managers helping to set their performance goals are very likely to be engaged at work:
27% not engaged
4% actively disengaged
The same goes for employees who see managers focusing on their strengths and positive characteristics:
31% not engaged
2% actively disengaged
Source: Gallup, 2015
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