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Be Emotional, Be Defensive

I broke in to tears. In front of my manager. Two years after college, in my first job in a small firm in Mountain View, California, and in my first real performance review I received what I considered then, not so good feedback. If that was not enough, he told me that “Ken,” who happened […]

I broke in to tears. In front of my manager. Two years after college, in my first job in a small firm in Mountain View, California, and in my first real performance review I received what I considered then, not so good feedback. If that was not enough, he told me that “Ken,” who happened to be a good friend and colleague of mine had been promoted to Industry Manager and I was to remain an analyst.

It is that time of the year. The supervisor sits down with the subordinate and gives yearly performance feedback. The classic approach tends to be to share certain positive aspects followed by certain negative…or a more socially acceptable word would be, constructive aspects. The subordinate leaves with mixed feelings and the supervisor feels satisfied of having done the job. 

30 years in the workplace, at times I have gotten feedback that many receive the world over. “Be less emotional,” and “now…now, don’t be defensive, just listen [and essentially agree].” Yes. In the early years, I did not know what this meant and guess how I responded? More emotionally and even more defensively.

Today, it is fun to laugh about it and even more fun to write about it.

Over the course of time, things did change. I flipped and took 360 degree feedback to heart; started seeing authentic feedback as a professional boost and really worked on changing. I started going out of my way, sitting down with my managers frequently during the course of the year and created an environment where they could provide real meaningful feedback. It was I believe 2008 when I started openly sharing my 360 degree feedback and performance management with my team and eventually the entire workforce. Ever since, I have found it liberating. My image of me of a Joe Burrow, getting critical feedback, incorporating it and getting better. It has become a sport.

That said, lets’s accept it. Performance feedback is hard. Being emotional is being human. Being defensive is a human coping mechanism. If we were not a defensive species, we would have been wiped out from the face of the earth, gone extinct. In fact, upon reflection, I have found being defensive on some fronts, as my own way of intellectualizing and internalizing what is being provided. A good healthy debate around it provides thoughts that linger on and eventually get addressed over the course of time. I find myself being defensive on what I eventually come to realize the highest quality critical feedback.

Those who preach to not be emotional are suggesting that you be stoic, expression-less, nod and say thank you. I don’t know how to do that. It is suppressing and suffocating. I refuse to be a robot.

Receiving critical feedback and to be stoic, being told where the ball was dropped and not being defensive, does not necessarily make a healthy work environment. I am not suggesting breaking social norms or showing temper. Rather, being open to feedback and to seek it, while debating on it and trying to mine the true nugget.

Feedback is truly the breakfast of champions. I ask my colleagues, can you imagine Serena Williams or Gustavo Dudamel not open to feedback? Can you be a great athlete or a musician who has gotten there by being closed and not open to feedback? And when they get critical feedback, do you think they are un-emotional and not defensive about it?

At the start of a new year and this new decade, I suggest become a feedback hog, a magnet—all year round. Along the way if you find yourself being emotional or reacting defensively, don’t be too hard on yourself.

Girish Rishi is Chief Executive Officer at JDA Software Inc.  

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