Why Feedback is Not the Monster Under Your Bed

Think back to the last big project you took the lead on. What went well? What students were serviced by your deeds and determination? Now, shift your focus to the areas in which walls crumbled, knees were skinned, and angry parents were calling because of something you missed.

Many of us know the saying, “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” I’d like to add to the idiom and say, “Don’t cry over spilled milk, without first examining how you spilled the milk in the first place.” Having recently completed 2 years as a graduate Residence Director for First Year students, I have had my share of spilled milk, slips, falls, fails, and everything in between. In short, there were moments in which I simply messed up. Fortunately for me, I had supervisors, colleagues, mentors, and friends (even strangers at times) who took a genuine interest in my success enough to provide me with constructive criticism when I needed – and when I did not want to hear it.

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Before I continue, you should know that I have struggled with a huge irrational fear of feedback for years. It’s been the monster under my bed, which rears its ugly head at my most vulnerable moments. I have not mastered accepting feedback without feeling like crap afterwards, but I have found significantly more value in the helpfulness and practicality a few words of feedback can have if received with an open mind, and then implemented accordingly.

During year one of my grad RD journey, my top priorities were befriending every student on campus and being the world’s most adored supervisor. I soon realized that candy at every staff meeting, high fives for every student, and an arsenal of corny jokes were no longer going to help me lead in the way I needed to anymore. Summer camp was over.

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Enter the Feedback

At some point, I was pulled aside, and encouraged to set clear boundaries with students, be more consistent and build trust with my staff, and to clearly communicate objectives and updates to my colleagues. While I absorbed the advice and feedback – writing it down in my professional development journal and mulling it over in my head for weeks on end – my ego was bruised a bit. Okay, it was bruised a lot a bit. I went to a dark hiding place and cried for a while and while the tears eventually stopped, the feedback kept on coming: I was making mistakes with administrative tasks, being inaccurate with dates and times of events and the source of confusion among my staff. Something had to give, and giving up was not an option.

That Moment when One Question Changes Everything

One day, during an impromptu meeting turned heart-to-heart-honesty-session, a co-worker told me their main focus in their role at our institution was to provide world class customer service to the students. They asked me, “Sinclair, I know it’s been rough for you these past few months, but what do you really think our students need?” This question alone pulled me out of my pity party – which was all the rave by the way- and helped to get back on track. I had not been thinking about how to best serve our students – my students. My students were struggling in a myriad of areas within the residence halls, my student staff members were making a last call for stable, trustworthy, and competent leadership before planning a coup, and my colleagues and supervisor requested more organization and follow through from me. The main lesson learned: feedback – when communicated out of care and from a person of integrity- can help an individual, team, or organization reach a goal in the most effective and efficient way while enabling the individual to grow and transform in positive ways.

There is no monster under my bed. It’s really just a mirror. And when I look at it and see what needs to change I’m able to turn my areas of growth into strengths. Those strengths allow me to provide world class customer service.

Here’s what I have found to be helpful when faced with feedback:

Step One: Fight the urge to run in the opposite direction and actually take in what the person is saying. Realize the feedback is about how you are doing, and not about who you are as a person.

Step Two: Ask for the person giving feedback to clarify the feedback so you know what you need to change, modify, or delete. Then thank them for taking the time to provide you with insight.

Step Three: Figure out practical ways in which to implement the feedback in order to provide world class customer service to your students.

I know, feedback can sting and downright take us student affairs professionals out of the game for a while, but it’s up to us to remind ourselves of who we are serving at the end of the day. We then must discern on which constructive criticism and feedback from friends and supervisors will allow us to take our service to the next level.

What have you learned about feedback during your professional journey?

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This article was originally posted on the Student Affairs Collective.

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