The follow is excerpted from Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict, by Donna Hicks, published September, 2011, by Yale University Press.
Don't resist feedback from others. We often don't know what we don't know. We all have blind spots; we all unconsciously behave in undignified ways. We need to overcome our self-protective instincts and accept constructive criticism. Feedback gives us an opportunity to grow.
Ted (not his real name), who held a significant leadership position in his company, derived much of his sense of self-worth from having such a high level of authority. He had worked hard to reach his position and was understandably proud of his accomplishments. In his view, his relationships with those reporting directly to him were satisfactory, although staff meetings were tense at times. He often had to exert his authority when important decisions had to be made, but for the most part, he felt that he was doing a good job as a manager.
It thus came as shock when he discovered during a facilitated workshop that his staff felt that he sometimes violated their dignity. Before the session, his staff had believed that an open and honest discussion about his violations was off-limits; they feared retribution, maybe even losing their jobs. As you might guess, being unable to address the issue created unspoken tensions between Ted and his staff; no one felt safe to be vulnerable, which meant the staff endured violations of their dignity with no hope of improvements.
Their fears of how Ted would react if they brought up the subject were well founded. Ted's immediate reaction to hearing what he felt was negative criticism was to go into primal-emotional default mode. He spent part of the workshop session defending himself, trying to convince his staff that they hadn't experienced what they said they had experienced. During his tirade, his staff just sat there with hopeless looks on their faces.
What I was seeing was a reenactment of the dynamics that occurred in staff meetings. Instead of trying to understand his staff's experiences, he told them all the reasons they were wrong. He had no curiosity about why they felt the way they did—he was too busy defending himself. There was no acknowledgment or recognition of their perspective. Ted's defensive strategy left him in control—he had the power of his position to do that. But what he failed to see was the effect his behavior had on his staff. They felt that their concerns didn't matter. And they felt resigned to enduring indignities as part of the job. But the indignities created resentment, and resentment accumulates.
One day even the slightest provocation could trigger a blowup.
Ironically, the staff felt that in personal matters, Ted was there for them. He was often kind, and he showed compassion for whatever they were going through. But staff meetings were a different story.
Now that the off-limits truth was out, the tension in the room was electric. To keep Ted in the room, I needed to help him see that the feedback from his staff was not addressed to the whole of who he was. It was about a small but significant part of him that was getting him into trouble with people. The feedback was not intended to hurt Ted; rather, his employees were illuminating a blind spot, something we all have. But Ted's self-preservation reactions dominated his response. His knee-jerk reaction was to resist the feedback and defend what felt like a threat to his dignity. His initial response came so fast that we could do little but let the emotional hurricane run its course.
In an earlier session with Ted and his staff, we had talked about the importance of being able to take feedback from others in order to help us see what we cannot see ourselves. At that time, the discussion was in the abstract—there was nothing threatening about agreeing that feedback was invaluable. This session was different: we were dealing with a live example. I was grateful to have the opportunity to put the theory into practice. Taming the evolutionary threats to our dignity is difficult work, but I had faith that Ted would be able to do it and even model the behavior for his staff. In the end, the workshop entailed an excellent demonstration of the innate human resistance to feedback plus a demonstration of how to overcome that resistance.
Ted finally accepted the feedback as feedback. Once he calmed down after his immediate emotional reaction, he was able to see that no one was trying to make him feel bad or look bad. What his employees and I tried to make clear and kept repeating like a mantra was that he was a good person and, like every other human being, he needed help to see his blind spots.
The workshop also provided the perfect opportunity to show the importance of the distinction between one's worthiness, which is inviolable, and one's behavior, which is open to judgment. Disentangling these two concepts is not easy, because our emotional brain (the Me) cannot make the distinction. To our limbic system, feedback feels like a threat to our dignity. We have to rely on another part of ourselves (the I) to see the truth about the matter. It took time for Ted to see that what his staff was offering him was an opportunity to correct something about his behavior that was dysfunctional. A certain behavior was getting him into trouble not only with them but probably with other people and in other relationships.
I would like to examine Ted's reaction from another perspective. Yes, his immediate instinctive response was partly due to something we all share—the deep desire not to want to look bad in the eyes of others and to avoid the feeling of shame that comes along with looking bad. This is our default reaction: to resist feedback. Another way of looking at Ted's reaction is in terms of his understanding of dignity.
Copyright © 2011 by Donna Hicks. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.