"I love getting harsh feedback," said no one ever.
But some are better at receiving feedback than others.
Not surprisingly, research tells us that our ability to receive feedback with grace and good humor often hinges on one important thing: self esteem. Even (or maybe especially) when our work performance is slumping, we tend to run from negative feedback and seek out positive affirmation instead. Why? Because we are trying to protect ourselves.
Think about it. When someone tells you or me, "You're not doing that right," or "You could do that better," often our first instinct is to explain, complain, or blame. "That's ridiculous," we huff. "You just don't know or understand this like I do." And underneath all of our huffing and puffing, you and I are nursing bruised egos. Because when others "attack" the work we do, we mistakenly believe that we ourselves are under attack.
But some view feedback - even the harsh kind - as a gift. Underlying this perspective you will usually find a rock-solid sense of self-esteem and self-worth. These are vastly different from arrogance or ego, which are treachorously unstable foundations that often require propping up by others. In sharp contrast, true self esteem can stand on its own.
We all know true self-esteem when we see it in others: grace, humility, coolheadedness and composure, and a great sense of humor. Those who are truly self-confident have no need to prove themselves to others. So, any feedback can be gratefully received as an opportunity to improve and grow.
We all know unstable pride and ego when we see it, too. When we mix personal ego with our work and any feedback we receive about work, we will attempt to explain, complain, blame, or attack the messengers of the feedback. Call it instinct or self-preservation - we honestly feel our foundation of self is under attack.
Which brings me to my main point: the main secret to receiving feedback is to ground our sense of worth in things other than job performance. And to check our ego and pride at the door.
But to make this even more practical, let's explore seven do's and seven don'ts for receiving feedback. These are based on the openness-defensiveness scale first developed by the Harvard Business School.
7 Don'ts of Receving Feedback
Stephen Covey wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Don't pretend to listen to the feedback while you are internally preparing all the reasons why it's wrong, misguided, and ridiculous.
Truth be told, most of us feel a little insecure at times. A dead giveaway is being argumentive. While this often comes out as "You're wrong," it can also manifest as "You just don't understand, so let me spend the next four hours explaining myself so you don't think this is all my fault." Lengthy arguments, justifications, and explanations often backfire because others see them as attempts to hide or shift blame. Consider the irony here: if we're worried about making a bad impression, this will surely launch us in the wrong direction.
Don't try to duck feedback by ducking those providing it. Common ways we do this include avoiding meetings or not answering emails and slack messages. We may also try to avoid responsibility with excuses, blame-shifting, and constantly interrupting to "explain our side."
The following are often used to convey a sense of superiority over other people: eye-rolling, loud sighs, finger-drumming, crossed arms and legs, smirking, and speaking down to others in a snide, condescending way. When hearing stuff we don't want to hear, we may be tempted to express superiority and annoyance in order to shut the messenger up. But it won't work. Shutting down feedback doesn't mean the feedback isn't there. It just means we have closed ourselves from hearing it.
Don't turn around and accuse the messenger or blame others who are not present or able to defend themselves. If others share responsibility, they will usually hear about it. Be patient and allow this to happen without your interference.
Don't attack others in anger and/or emotional manipulation. Also, don't try to win the argument - feedback is not a fight to be won or lost.
Don't make promises to act on feedback that you do not intend to keep. Integrity is a powerful factor in leadership. Protect it at all costs.
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7 Do's of Receiving Feedback
Give the messenger your undivided attention. Make sure your facial expression and body language say, "I'm open to what you are saying."
2. Active Listening.
Active listening involves asking questions to gain clarity, allowing others to finish their thoughts with minimal interruption, reflecting back others' words and emotions, and summarizing key points without interjecting our own thoughts and judgments. Active listening means we try to understand and empathize with the other person's viewpoint. It's challenging to do when we are upset, angry, or when we don't agree with what is being said. But it can make all the difference. If you are concerned that your viewpoint is not being heard, consider that the other person is much more likely to be receptive if you take the time to understand him/her first.
Thank others for feedback, regardless of how it gets delivered. Remember, feedback is not about your worth as a human being. Rather, it's data that you can use to your benefit. Be thankful for it.
Be genuinely curious about the issue at hand and your part in it. Others will see right through fake questions and fake expressions of appreciation. They will also know if you are authentically invested in the conversation. If you struggle with this, try to imagine that you and the messenger both play on the same sports team (doesn't matter which). Next, imagine the feedback is a ball that you are inspecting and playing with together. This simple exercise does a couple things. First, it helps you remember that, since you and your colleague are on the same side, feedback does not have to be adversarial. Second, it helps you mentally separate yourself from the issue and so approach it with real curiosity.
5. Ask Questions.
Replace the urge to complain, explain, and blame with true curiosity about the issue, your role, and what you can do to resolve things. Brainstorm out loud about the steps you can take.
Own your role in the issue. Take full responsibility for fixing things.
Don't just say that you are going to do something about the feedback. Create an action plan and follow through.
For more information, check out resources for receiving feedback at the Harvard Business Review.
Research on receiving feedback:
Alicke, M. D., & Sedikides, C. (2009). Self-enhancement and self-protection: What they are and what they do. European Review of Social Psychology, 20(1), 1-48.
Meyer, H. H. (1991). A solution to the performance appraisal feedback enigma. Academy of Management Perspectives, 5(1), 68-76.
Ulichney, G., Jarcho, J., & Helion, C. (2021). The Self, Emotion, & Regulation Model of Giving and Receiving Constructive Feedback.