In August, I submitted a petition for promotion at work. It’s basically my organization’s way of allowing employees who think that they are operating at the next level to receive a promotion. It’s an involved process, one that consists of answering multiple questions with long answers, meetings with people that represent you at the promotion decision panel, and ensuring your biography and training record are up to date.
I had a good case this year. My panel representative and all of my supervisors said that they thought I was extremely competitive.
Then I wasn’t promoted. I wasn’t shocked because I’m rarely shocked by things that my organization does, but I was still upset.
A few weeks later, I had a meeting with “Angela”, a pseudonym for the true name of my panel representative, to discuss why I wasn’t promoted and feedback the panel had for me.
When I sat down with Angela, she handed me a sheet of paper, which had a number of observations regarding my comparison to the other officers who were promoted, as well as developmental feedback on what I could do to address the areas in which they felt I was deficient compared to the ones who were promoted.
When I reached the bottom of the page, I began to laugh.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said to Angela. She looked at me blankly.
“You’re saying that I need to take a course called Leadership Styles and Behaviors to work on my leadership skills.” I paused for a moment. “Angela, I teach that class. I’ve been teaching it for three years.”
The most unfortunate part of the whole thing was that teaching this course is something that I included that point in my petition for promotion. It was one of the things I was most proud about, as I was the only adjunct instructor for the course at my particular grade level.
So let’s break this down. Angela, as my representative was supposed to go through my record and highlight the big things I had done. Then, the panel was supposed to look at my record and see what I had done. If they had, wouldn’t they have seen that I was an instructor for this course? If so, how could they then tell me that this was a course I needed to take?
At this point, Angela had a choice: admit that she and the panel made a mistake by missing this or digging in and doubling down on this recommendation.
She dug in.
“Parker, we carefully considered this and we think that you really need to work on your interpersonal skills and that this is a course that can help you with that.”
I was starting to get more and more frustrated. “I teach this course. How does it make sense for me to take it?”
“Well, Parker, it’s a different perspective if you take it. You see things from a different way.”
In my organization, you can’t teach a course unless you’ve taken it, so I reminded Angela that I did in fact take the course and that it was reflected on my training record (something else the panel must have overlooked).
She continued to dig in. “Parker, this is what the panel determined you needed to work on. You’re being very combative in receiving this feedback.”
Even worse, as the conversation continued, Angela admitted that she didn’t even know the details of the course. I was the one who had to explain that it was a five-day offsite course, and I taught multiple modules during multiple days. She didn’t know any of that, which made recommending the course even worse.
Combative? I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. I was in a Bizzaro World. I was looking for actionable, specific, and helpful feedback, and I all I got was a recommendation to take a course that I instructed. How did this make any sense?
But this dilemma is deeper than that. I was in a precarious situation. I had a more senior officer who told me that a group of more senior officers thought that I needed to work on these skills and to take this particular course. Their perception was reality, even though they were clearly wrong about the feedback they were giving me.
By standing up for myself and voicing my concern over the feedback, I was bucking authority, telling the higher-ups that they were wrong. That’s a place that no higher-up likes to be in. I have no doubt that my reaction and response was off-putting to Angela and that in all likelihood she shared my response with the other panel members and other senior officers in my chain of command. This, then, puts me in a worse situation than I was before. And all of this came because they gave me, what I liked to call, Twilight Zone feedback, feedback that makes you say to yourself, “Is this for real?”
So what do you do when you receive Twilight Zone feedback? Doing what I did probably is not the best course of action, so here are a few lessons that you could consider implementing if you are in a similar situation:
- Just say thank you and save the discussion for another day. There will be very little you can do in a discussion when you are receiving feedback, no matter how bad it is or how wrong it is or how much you know better. Once you accept the feedback, you can take the time to “process it” (even if you don’t have to do any processing), and then have a follow up discussion.
- In your follow up discussion, focus on asking questions that lead the feedback provider to explain how they reached their conclusions and you just might be able to get them to recognize and admit their errors. What I should have done, after taking the time to reflect on the feedback, is returned with another conversation a week or two later and said something like: “Angela, I was taking a further look at the conversation and noticed that you recommended this specific course. Can you tell me more about why you picked this specific one? Did you notice that this course is listed on my training record already? Did you notice from my petition that I’m actually an instructor for this course? Let the feedback provider recognize their mistake instead of you calling it out.
- You can always go higher up. In my case, I reacted directly to my feedback provider. What I could (and perhaps should) have done is gone to another officer higher up in the food chain and explained the situation. In doing so, I acknowledge that I accept the feedback but am struggling to see how it fits for me. Perhaps an outside perspective can also help identify the Twilight Zone feedback and get you more actionable feedback.
I’ll submit another petition for promotion this year, but I don’t know if things will be any different. I clearly can’t take a course that I already teach because even if I did sign up for it, the course program manager would recognize I enrolled and probably say to me, “Parker, what the hell are you doing? You teach this course. Why did you sign up?”
I don’t know how I’ll address the deficiencies they have identified, but perhaps I’ll figure it out in due time. Until then, I’ll try to remember my lessons above, and perhaps you could, too. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.