“It is complicated”- is a relationship status that no one aspires to. It typically speaks to a relationship that is characterized by drama, mixed feelings, and unresolved issues. Yet, when I think about my own history and relationship with feedback- it is complicated are the only words to describe it. If you are like me, you probably have some unresolved issues and questions about feedback. Should I love it or hate it? Should I seek it, or should I shy away from it? And what should I do with the feedback I have received? Should I act on it, or do I simply discard it if/when the message is not what I want to hear? And what if I do not like or respect the person who gave it to me- is it still legitimate? At one point, does it cross over to – allowing the opinions of other to determine my opinion of myself? These are but a few of the complex questions that surface, as I try to navigate this critical aspect of interpersonal communication and everyday interactions.
What makes feedback so complicated?
We cannot grow or improve without feedback. All the research tells us that one’s ability to give and receive effective feedback, is perhaps the single most important way to develop self-mastery and hone the skills needed to successfully lead and manage people and organizations.
And by giving feedback, we help others develop greater self-awareness and understand the behaviors they might need to change or correct. Yet none of this, makes feedback any easier to give or receive. In my personal and professional life, I have felt immense joy from feedback I have received and equally cried many bitter tears from the hurt experienced upon receiving it. I have also observed people at all levels of organizations struggle with- finding the best way(s) to give feedback a coworker or supervisor and deal with the mixed emotions or fall out that feedback can result in, after it has been given and received. So, I get it- the struggle is real for both the givers and receivers of feedback.
So how do we get better at giving and receiving feedback?
Given the importance of feedback as a soft skill, I have developed a keen interest in understanding and learning more about what the research says about feedback, with a view of helping myself and others become more comfortable with feedback. Here are a few useful insights to remember as you try to hone your skills and become a better giver and receiver.
- Treat feedback as information: We often attach labels such as positive, negative, constructive, developmental to define the feedback we give and receive. These labels evaluate the content of the feedback and have led some of us to to believe that, feedback messages that highlight the positives are good and feedback that highlights the negatives are bad. As a result, some of us have developed a preference for giving and receiving the type(s) of feedback we want to hear and miss out on opportunities for valuable insights for growth. When we view feedback as information, it encourages us to see feedback as insights on what we did and/or how we are doing (not positive or negative). By so doing, we can use feedback to guide our actions and decisions, reduce some of the anxieties we feel and change our attitudes for the better.
- Separate the message from the messenger: It’s easy to disregard the feedback messages we receive because we do not like or respect the person who gave it. Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant argues that, “how well we receive feedback is determined by our relationship with the giver.” This is true. Our relationship (good or bad) with the giver has a direct impact on how we react to messages we receive. If we trust the person who is giving us feedback, we are much more likely to be open and receptive to the feedback, even if the message is hard to hear. However, if we question the motive(s) of the person giving us feedback, we are just as likely to be more defensive or quick to disregard their feedback. One way of us to improve in this area is to avoid ‘wrong spotting’. Sheila Heen (one of the authors of Difficult Conversation) describes ‘wrong spotting,” as the tendency we have to scan the feedback we receive to find something wrong with it so that we can reject it. Another recommendation is for us to pause and sift through the feedback to determine what is valuable, what we can learn from it and discard the comments that we don’t accept or find useful.
- Value receiving feedback as much as you do giving feedback: We’ve all taken a course or class on feedback. Most of these sessions typically focus on how to give feedback and the common mistakes to avoid, but neglect to help people understand how to receive feedback well. This approach is problematic, because it fails to prepare and equip people with the skills they need to action feedback effectively or use it to grow.
And let’s face it, receiving feedback can be difficult. The feedback we receive can sometimes challenge our insecurities and highlight our deficiencies in ways that threaten how we see our self. When people are not equipped to handle feedback well, communication breaks down, relationships are damaged and performance conversations become a source of staff disengagement.
Instead, we should equally focus on on listening for understanding, ask clarifying questions, say thanks and then spend some time reflecting on what we have heard. This will allow us to respond less emotionally to the feedback and demonstrate to the giver that we are open to feedback, willing to learn and ready to grow
4. Understand your triggers: How well we respond to the difficult feedback we receive and our actions afterwards can have a greater impact on your future career, than the initial feedback given. The key to getting better at receiving feedback is to understand and manage the feelings we have about it. In their article, Finding the Coaching in Criticism, Sheila Heen & Douglas Stone urges us to try to understand the kind of feedback that pushes our buttons. She points to three triggers that we must seek to manage:
- Truth triggers– this refers to the advice that seems unhelpful and untrue. It leaves us feeling indignant and wronged.
- Relationship triggers -speaks to what we believe about the giver and how you feel about your previous interactions.
- Identity triggers– are all about your relationship with yourself. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or not, it may cause you to feel defensive and has the potential to be most devastating. Once we are able to understand our triggers, we will be in a better position to manage them.
5. Ask for Feedback – Feedback is a gift. The same feedback that can make us feel so horrible is the same information that can push us forward. Some of us work in environments and teams where we do not get enough feedback from our supervisors and peers. And we develop blind spots that undermine our personal effectiveness and magnify our gaps. Managers are not immune from these problems either. The research says, the higher up you go in an organization, the less feedback you receive. So, senior managers are often suffering from a lack of feedback. To address these problem, here are two suggestions:
- Ask for it– Asking someone for feedback on how you are doing can be scary and awkward. So start by asking for one thing.” Start by asking a colleague or supervisor- what is one thing you see me doing or failing to do that holds me back?
- Build a challenge network– We all have that circle of friends we call for support and comfort when things go wrong. The challenge network is the opposite. Building a challenge network requires that you to identify one person (Not a friend) on the team(s) you’re a part of that you trust and give permission to provide you with feedback on how you are showing up. Develop this network and check in often. This is guaranteed to give you a perspective you wouldn’t otherwise have and great information to propel your growth.
Feedback is a gift. Be kind and always say thank you.
Until next time, the learning and the journey continues. Remember, It’s A Learning Life!