Feedback: Separating Content from Judgment

brandon_blackBrandon Black is CEO of Encore Capital Group. He first attended Learning as Leadership’s 4-Mastery program with his executive team in 2005-2006. Since then, he has leveraged LaL to lead a multi-year culture change initiative in his company. The dramatic results have been in large part due to Brandon’s commitment to transparently working on his own leadership behaviors, modeling what he is asking his employees to change.

Here, Brandon describes one of his most important realizations in learning to provide timely and consistent feedback to his extended leadership team.

LAL: You have shared about how your leadership has changed by discovering the difference between judgment and content. Can you explain?

BB: To begin with, what has become clear to me is that over my career, my judgment about why people do things or don’t do things has clouded both my willingness and ability to deliver needed feedback to them.

LAL: In what way?

BB: Often the things that were in need of addressing the most or were the most critical, I would actually not deliver. Largely because I would have a judgment and had already decided in advance whether a person could succeed or not, whether they could hear my feedback or not and whether or not they would actually change.
LAL: What impact did that have in your workplace? 

BB: Because I was applying this filtering mechanism of judgment, it left me unable to deliver the most sensitive, most important feedback to people that would have really helped them to succeed in their jobs. The outcome was they then often failed because they didn’t know how to improve on things.

LAL: How did you realize this dynamic and begin to change it?

BB: I was working with Shayne, and he started to coach me on the idea of separating the content of what someone was doing from my judgments about it. As I became connected to that, it became much easier for me as a leader to deliver feedback.

LAL: Can you drill down on that just a little bit and talk about how this played out?

BB:  Now, when I have a concern about something a staff member is doing, I try and understand it from their perspective. I’m more open to the idea that I may be missing important information and facts and don’t want to draw the wrong conclusion. So when I talk to them about what I see, I frame it as “Here is what I see; here is how I see it.” Then I ask them questions and give them a chance to ask me questions, so we can have a dialogue. Often a different perspective emerges. I’ve found that it’s possible to come from a place where you are delivering the content that needs to be given, but it’s not attached to a value judgment of the person as an individual.

LAL: What kind of impact is this having in your workplace?

BB: For example, we had a business unit in our company that was struggling to meet its objectives. We had a strategic offsite and what was on everyone’s mind from the other business units was “Why are we still investing in their initiatives?” So I put it on the table as an exploratory topic. In other words, instead of focusing on our judgments about those guys and how “they are not getting the job done and we should just stop investing,” we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the unit, why we should or shouldn’t keep them, etc.

LAL: What was the result of having that kind of conversation instead of focusing on judgments?

BB: Ultimately everyone in the room had a better sense of where that business unit was and why it was struggling, and the two people there from the leadership team of that unit felt supported by everyone else. Even if ultimately we decided to reduce our investment, I think everyone would understand the complexities around the decision. It’s not as simple as “The numbers aren’t there; we should make a different allocation of resources.”

LAL: Why isn’t it as simple as the numbers not being there?

BB: Too often, the judgment “those guys aren’t getting their job done” makes the content seem simple, but it’s often more complicated than that. In other words, this wasn’t personal; it wasn’t that the guys running this unit were bad guys. It was more about the business and where it was. By being able to have a content, business-based discussion about the unit, not a judgment-based conversation, we were able to explore the more complex aspects of the situation.

LAL: What has the long-term impact of this change from judgment to content meant to you?

BB: Having practiced this over a period of time now, I find I have the ability to discuss pretty much anything with anybody, without having to be right about my judgments. In the past, when I had these judgments, I would either a) not have the conversation, or b) quickly shut the conversation down if it started going down a path I did not want it to go down, because I was trying to control the outcomes. Now my goal is to be authentic and share information. Once things are out in the open, I’ve learned to trust the process.

  1. Jenny says:

    Laura and Brandon,

    I found this post to be a precious reminder of something its hard for me to hold onto. My beliefs–and fears–of how people will react if I tell them how I really see what’s going on lead me to hold back from giving the feedback. As a result, things don’t improve, my dissatisfaction grows, and I can’t hold back forever. When the feedback does come out it comes out too harshly, without compassion and without much interest in exploring the other person’s point of view. Then the other person feels hurt or angry, and I feel guilty, and I’m less willing to have the conversation in the future!

    The idea of separating judgment from feedback is a real paradigm-shifter for me. I’m going to put it on my calendar to practice it regularly.

    Thank you both!

  2. Nellie says:

    It is difficult to make decisions when you have a preconceived notion of someone/something, but it happens to all of us. Living without judgements is a task for the best of us.

  3. Jonathan Dougherty says:

    People put their feelings ahead of what it is that others are saying and are unable to hear what is truly being said.

  4. Lindsay Norton says:

    I disagree, I think the onus should be on the person speaking to learn to be more sensitive in how they are delivering what it is they are trying to say. Too often people say things in rude and inappropriate ways which can only offend the other person and inhibit further communication.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I think this is a case in which you are both right. When delivering a message, how we say it has a tremendous impact on how clearly it is received. Being guided by our intention instead of our judgments is an important component of this.

      On the other hand, as listeners, we often react if a speaker doesn’t say something just right or if their anxiety makes them harsh or awkward. Our ego will search for any justification to defend against acknowledging the message.

      When both speaker and listener are vigilant with their derailleurs, even the most delicate conversations are possible.

  5. Iflycoach says:

    You are absolutely right, and it does take practice in order to really get a grasp of how to do this.

  6. Allison May says:

    what you are describing is truly the mark of an excellent boss!

  7. Denise Jackson says:

    I have lived in several different countries and nowhere have I found it more difficult to truly understand people than in our N. American culture. People just cannot seem to be able to say what it is that they really mean!

  8. Kara Guthrie says:

    Thanks for posting, it is definitely an important topic and it would benefit most businesses and individuals to understand the value of separating content from judgement.

  9. Rhonda Allred says:

    separating content from judgement is definitely more easily said than done! We live in a culture where everyone is so sensitive to criticism that we have to sugarcoat everything for fear of “offending” someone.

  10. Ash says:

    I am one of those lucky few who have a boos that is precisely like what you are speaking of, and it has much such a difference for all of us who work for her, and it has improved our organization as a whole.

  11. Nathaniel says:

    Glad to see more discussion on this topic, as it really does create more effective communication.

  12. Arlene O'Donnell says:

    I think the key thing really is in the fact that he is modeling the behavior himself, and then others know what is being expected.

  13. Nia Henderson-Young says:

    This should not only be practiced in the workplace but in other areas of our lives. We would all be better off.

  14. Shayne Hughes says:

    This last comment really strikes a chord with me. How many times do our judgments with our children or our spouses/partners come out in ways that hurt them? Or we hold these thoughts in, but feel disconnected? There can be some very touchy topics in our home life, with people we deeply care about. Learning to say what needs saying, but without the judgment, can really make a difference in these relationships.

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