“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” ~ Bill Gates
Receiving feedback with grace is a valuable leadership skill, yet many managers struggle with it. While we’re often quick to critique others, being on the receiving end involves an entirely different set of emotional and psychological skills.
Few leaders deny feedback’s benefits, but their openness to hearing and applying it may fall short. Accepting feedback is a best-practice skill that requires emotional intelligence, relational aptitude and humility. The benefits extend to everyone in the workplace and beyond.
Four fundamental concepts will help you manage professional feedback:
- Recognize feedback for what it actually is: information about yourself. It almost always involves someone’s assessment of you—fairly simple, yet not always fair.
- Three types of feedback, with differing purposes, potential benefits and pitfalls, are at play.
- Inherent tensions will affect how you feel during any feedback session (i.e., your need to excel, be accepted and be seen as worthy). Each of us has these emotional survival traits, which can cloud our emotions as we listen to criticism.
- Consequently, we experience resistance to feedback. Some of us brace for it, some fear it, and others try to prevent its delivery altogether.
Three Types of Feedback
Leadership consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen describe three types of feedback conversations in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Penguin Books, 2014):
Benefits: uplifting, acknowledging, reassuring
Benefits: can teach and allow growth in skills, knowledge, capabilities or contribution to the organization
Benefits: can establish a standard and clarify expectations
Experiencing unpleasant observations and opinions at work can be painful and hard to take. The need for acceptance is universal, so we instinctively move toward enjoyable encounters and away from those that are painful.
The Driving Force of Resistance
Humans are wired to avoid unsettling issues and, consciously or unconsciously, will avoid pain. These natural survival traits drive us as far away from the feedback loop as possible.
Thus, most leaders are reluctant to receive feedback—a continuing workplace challenge. We generally don’t want to receive difficult information about ourselves, so issues go unresolved and challenges grow deeper. Staff is afraid to approach certain subjects, and trust and unity suffer.
Fortunately, leaders can learn to master emotional conflicts through coaching. Fears can be converted into strengths, thereby creating positive results.
Four Challenges of Receiving Feedback
Leaders must address four primary challenges to conquer their natural resistance to feedback, note Stone and Heen:
1. Listen and learn.
As you receive feedback, consider the positive side of the coin. There’s always something to learn about yourself, and the person providing feedback is trying to help—not hurt—you. This attitude doesn’t come naturally. Work toward picturing a collective interest in making things better, which will help minimize any stigma.
Focusing on personal and organizational improvement can help you overcome resistance, despite any fears or anxieties. Negative feelings needn’t override your ability to learn from feedback. View feedback through the lens of excelling and improving.
It’s important to remember feedback’s purpose instead of retreating into defensive mode. It’s not about your character taking a hit. Try to grasp the feedback provider’s point of view, and recognize that it generally takes sincere concern to muster the courage to offer difficult feedback. Appreciating this will go a long way and set the stage for professional growth.
When assessing feedback, note that people say and interpret things differently. They use different verbiage and phrases. What’s heard may not be what’s meant. Asking questions helps achieve clarity. Taking sufficient time before you respond will afford an information-sharing dialogue. You’ll be rewarded with a new perspective, some of the best learning you can receive. There may be something you’re ready to see now that you couldn’t accept in the past.
Great listening skills will seldom let you down, suggest consultants Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford Business Books, 2015).
Listening well permits you to engage your people and learn from them. Some of this learning comes in the form of feedback. Listening builds trust and helps you lead by example.
In summary, you can learn a lot from what’s right in the feedback you receive.
2. Recognize and manage resistance to feedback.
Being aware of your emotional needs and insecurities is the first step in conquering them. Your need to be accepted may present as three significant fears, all closely related:
- Fear of having to change: Change represents the unknown, and most people dread it. We lack control and are anxious about things going wrong. Change implies your current system is inadequate, so does this mean you’re inadequate?
- Fear of failure: Significant failure can be personally debilitating for some and regarded as a career killer. If your identity is strongly tied to your position, you may view any failures at work as failure as a person.
- Fear of rejection: The strongest fear of all, rejection is erroneously viewed as worthlessness or purposelessness. There are few more distressing feelings.
Our emotional needs and fears may cause us to exaggerate or misrepresent the feedback we receive. We turn a specific negative event into a character flaw, engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, note business professors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris in “Don’t Let Your Brain’s Defense Mechanisms Thwart Effective Feedback” (Harvard Business Review blog, August 2016). Black-and-white thinking can induce “catastrophizing” (believing things are worse than they are).
This “selective perspective,” as it’s sometimes called, can lead to unbalanced reactions—and the more unbalanced, the more severe the consequences. With training, you can learn to be calm and reasonable, enjoying the relief that accompanies putting problems in perspective.
Is your situation really that serious? Do other people’s opinions give them magical powers over you? Not really. Recognize that short-term pain can yield long-term gain. A painful comment is not going to take you down. Things will be OK.
These approaches can help you overcome fears and anxieties, thus defeating your resistance to feedback.
3. Be confident when challenged.
As you receive feedback, three triggers will prompt you to categorize the provider’s comments, note Stone and Heen:
- Truth Triggers: If feedback is erroneous or off base, you can face it objectively and depersonalize it. Something that’s clearly untrue can be sorted out and dissected. Prompt the feedback giver to explain further or provide examples that work truth back into the equation.
- Relationship Triggers: Feelings about the feedback giver can taint your perspective, depending on trust levels. Do your feelings call the giver’s judgment into question? Recognizing this pitfall and filtering its effect can help you detach from the relationship and focus on the true issues.
- Identity Triggers: Feelings of inadequacy often trigger self-worth woes. Always remember that your leadership position doesn’t determine your worth. Questioning ourselves after negative feedback is normal, but relying on the value you’ve offered throughout your life can bring assurance. Screen out as many emotional components as possible.
Being aware of triggers lets you honestly evaluate feedback sources, assess their intentions, compare facts to opinions, and rely on a strong identity and self-worth. Training with a coach or mentor can prove invaluable.
4. Grow despite unfair feedback.
Personal growth may be the last thing you think about after receiving negative feedback. Instead of seeing unfair remarks as a setback, choose to view them as an opportunity to grow smarter, stronger and wiser. The following strategies can help:
- Filter input. Which information is credible? Which feedback strains credulity? Discard comments you believe to be invalid, using some type of objective measuring stick.
- Try to see the feedback giver’s perspective. People have reasons for making statements. Depersonalize their comments to isolate nuggets of truth.
- Identify your blind spots, and do something about them. If you receive similar feedback from multiple sources, there’s likely something you’re not seeing. Rely on a close circle of trusted advisors to set your perspectives straight.
- Be mindful of your historic response patterns. Others see them even if you don’t. Assess your emotions soberly to determine if they’re justified. Ask for feedback from people you trust. Alternatively, engage a professional coach to help you discover what you can’t see by yourself.
We make conscious choices when dealing with feedback:
- We can be learners or rejecters.
- We can grow or get upset.
- We can listen or ignore.
- We can be open to seeing ourselves for who we are and who we might become, or we can be comfortable with the status quo.
- We can establish boundaries and recognize unfairness, or we can accept all statements as criticism.
Making positive choices confers many benefits, including improved self-esteem, aspirations, satisfaction, relationships, trust, accountability, emotional well-being, accomplishment-based thinking, workplace culture and organizational contribution.
These rewards will carry over into your personal life, as well. Great leaders keep their emotions in check, appropriately respond to feedback and appreciate the gift of knowledge they receive.