“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.
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):
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.
Four Challenges of Receiving Feedback
Leaders must address four primary challenges to conquer their natural resistance to feedback, note Stone and Heen:
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.
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.
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:
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).
As you receive feedback, three triggers will prompt you to categorize the provider’s comments, note Stone and Heen:
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:
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.
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