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What To Do When You Receive Contradictory Feedback

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

“Feedback is a gift.” We’ve all heard it, and it’s often true. At its best, feedback from our bosses and colleagues helps us understand our strengths, weaknesses and impact on others. It sheds light on our blindspots and provides guidance for our growth and development. But when feedback is contradictory, it can leave us confused, defensive and unsure what to do. And yet, an apparent inconsistency in feedback often reveals an opportunity to develop a better understanding of the multiple contexts in which we operate and develop a more nuanced and flexible approach.

In over a dozen years of conducting 360 feedback reviews for my coaching clients, I have found that contradictory feedback is actually quite common. Most recipients find it confusing and frustrating, and they don’t know what to do with it. The first step is not to do anything, but instead to notice your own emotional reaction to the feedback. Whatever the emotion is—confusion, anger, hurt—acknowledge the feeling and pause. Are you hearing the feedback as a judgment on you? If so, then the contradiction is probably particularly upsetting, because your worthiness or identity is at stake. Instead, try to take the feedback as data to be understood and learned from, rather than a judgment of your worthiness. (You should actually take this approach to all the feedback you receive, even the kudos.) Once you understand what is behind the apparent contradiction, you can consider how you want to respond. Notice that each of these moves is a choice—first choosing to pause and not to react out of your emotion, second adopting a growth mindset and leaning into curiosity, and then finally deciding what you want to do in response to the feedback.

Start by getting curious about the apparent contradiction. (As my former coach used to say, “get curious, not furious.”) Sometimes conflicting feedback stems from differences among stakeholders. In this case, the same behavior may be received and interpreted differently by various constituents. For example, numerous colleagues appreciate Rajiv’s directness, while others find him overly blunt to the point of insensitivity on occasion. His first reaction is confusion: “Which is it? Am I a jerk or a straight shooter?” But the answer is much more complex. In this case, the feedback is only partly about Rajiv—it is also data about his coworkers’ communication preferences and needs. It turns out that peers who know him and trust him experience him differently from those who are newer to the organization and those who are junior to him. In addition, some colleagues from other cultural backgrounds have different conversational norms and prefer a less direct style. For them, what seems like “fluffy stuff” to Rajiv is actually connective tissue crucial to building trust with certain colleagues. Rajiv begins by cultivating his context awareness and empathy for different audiences. This helps him adjust his delivery and calibrate whether his default “cut to the chase” approach will work well or whether he needs to provide relevant context or ease into conversations more thoughtfully or gently. And while it feels awkward at first, even inauthentic, Rajiv is invested in these relationships and is willing to make the effort.

Contradictory feedback may also signify “two sides of the same coin,” where a quality or behavior that is a positive strength also has a shadow side that creates a negative impact. Renee’s team reported that her top strength is her steadiness; she is unflappable, calm in a crisis and highly pragmatic. Her calm demeanor helps reduce other team members’ worry and her pragmatism is essential to problem solving and realistic expectation setting. At the same time, nearly all of them also identified a common development theme: demonstrate more vision and passion to inspire the team. Renee’s initial reaction to this feedback is to focus on the negative and to feel frustrated and hurt. Her natural demeanor and leadership style is calm and even-keeled. She has seen the cost of emotional, volatile leadership and she seeks to balance out the more emotional team members and focus on the task at hand. It is painful to her that others don’t seem to appreciate her position. But then on reflection, she begins to hear the constructive feedback less as criticism or a demand that she change, and more as information about what her team desires. Does she have an overused strength that she needs to rein is? Perhaps there is an invitation for her to stretch. Renee puts herself in a position of choice about if and what she wants to change and realizes that it is okay not to be all things to all people. She begins to look for opportunities where she can tap into her emotions in positive ways to communicate appreciation, enthusiasm and optimism, which does not in any way undermine her ability to stay cool in a crisis.

Sometimes, contradictory feedback can signal that you are actually showing up differently with different people or in different circumstances. Darrell works in a strategy role, and his peers and direct manager think very highly of him and his strategic thinking ability. Meanwhile, senior leaders to whom he has presented find him unclear and are questioning his value to the team. Darrell’s reaction upon hearing this conflicting feedback is embarrassment and fear for his reputation and career prospects. He knows that he has good ideas and that he has the ability to communicate well, but in front of company executives his anxiety causes him to speak too fast, ramble, and get too deep into details. When he acknowledges that his fears cause him to show up differently in these different contexts, Darrell realizes that he has been under-preparing for these higher stakes interactions. By anticipating his heightened nerves, he can prepare more thoroughly, clarify his key points and even practice with his peers. Over time, he can improve his performance, build his confidence and his reputation. Another common indication that you are showing up inconsistently with different folks is if different groups have distinctly different impressions of you. Perhaps your team sees you as highly empathetic and supportive, but cross-functional partners find you impersonal and transactional. This gap might be a signal that you have too narrowly defined your definition of “team” and are not building trust outside your function. You might consider having periodic 1:1’s where you interact outside of your to-do list.

Finally, sometimes contradictory feedback is an outlierIf the vast weight of the feedback goes in one direction, don’t dismiss the contrary feedback out of hand. Reflect on the nature of the complaint. What truth do you see in it? How significant is the behavior and how costly would it be to change? For example, Kirk, a startup CEO, learned in his 360 that although his communication style and presence were a huge strength, one person on his team objected to his free use of “f-bombs.” No one else even mentioned it. He could have dismissed it, but instead he took an opportunity to have a team discussion on communication norms. It turned out that there was a mix of opinions about the use of swear words—some embraced them as signs of vehemence and enthusiasm, others expressed no strong opinion, and one of the older people on the team objected strongly that he found it jarring. Kirk decided to reduce his use of swear words and to be more intentional about when he used them. Doing nothing is always an option, but in any case, it is useful to be aware.

360 feedback can be messy. It does not always provide a clear recipe, but instead represents numerous data points—like having a lot of voices echoing in your head, each giving different and sometimes opposite advice. Though initially overwhelming, in each of these examples, what first presented as contradictory feedback revealed something in the context or relationships about which the recipient was unaware. When each of the feedback recipients took time to understand the nature of the seeming contradictions in the feedback and become more aware of their impact in different contexts, invitation to stretch and flex their behavior and mindset to meet different situations, expand their range or add new tools to their toolkit. The most important result is that they became more intentional and flexible. This capacity for flexing and adapting is essential to leadership and only becomes more important over the course of our professional lives. Even contradictory feedback can be a gift.