Written by: Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in January 2014
Feedback is crucial. That’s obvious: It improves performance, develops talent, aligns expectations, solves problems, guides promotion and pay, and boosts the bottom line.
But it’s equally obvious that in many organizations, feedback doesn’t work. A glance at the stats tells the story: Only 36% of managers complete appraisals thoroughly and on time. In one recent survey, 55% of employees said their most recent performance review had been unfair or inaccurate, and one in four said they dread such evaluations more than anything else in their working lives. When senior HR executives were asked about their biggest performance management challenge, 63% cited managers’ inability or unwillingness to have difficult feedback discussions. Coaching and mentoring? Uneven at best.
Most companies try to address these problems by training leaders to give feedback more effectively and more often. That’s fine as far as it goes; everyone benefits when managers are better communicators. But improving the skills of the feedback giver won’t accomplish much if the receiver isn’t able to absorb what is said. It is the receiver who controls whether feedback is let in or kept out, who has to make sense of what he or she is hearing, and who decides whether or not to change. People need to stop treating feedback only as something that must be pushed and instead improve their ability to pull.
For the past 20 years we’ve coached executives on difficult conversations, and we’ve found that almost everyone, from new hires to C-suite veterans, struggles with receiving feedback. A critical performance review, a well-intended suggestion, or an oblique comment that may or may not even be feedback (“Well, your presentation was certainly interesting”) can spark an emotional reaction, inject tension into the relationship, and bring communication to a halt. But there’s good news, too: The skills needed to receive feedback well are distinct and learnable. They include being able to identify and manage the emotions triggered by the feedback and extract value from criticism even when it’s poorly delivered.
Why Feedback Doesn’t Register
What makes receiving feedback so hard? The process strikes at the tension between two core human needs—the need to learn and grow, and the need to be accepted just the way you are. As a result, even a seemingly benign suggestion can leave you feeling angry, anxious, badly treated, or profoundly threatened. A hedge such as “Don’t take this personally” does nothing to soften the blow.
Getting better at receiving feedback starts with understanding and managing those feelings. You might think there are a thousand ways in which feedback can push your buttons, but in fact there are only three.
Truth triggers are set off by the content of the feedback. When assessments or advice seem off base, unhelpful, or simply untrue, you feel indignant, wronged, and exasperated.
Relationship triggers are tripped by the person providing the feedback. Exchanges are often colored by what you believe about the giver (He’s got no credibility on this topic!) and how you feel about your previous interactions (After all I’ve done for you, I get this petty criticism?). So you might reject coaching that you would accept on its merits if it came from someone else.
Identity triggers are all about your relationship with yourself. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, it can be devastating if it causes your sense of who you are to come undone. In such moments you’ll struggle with feeling overwhelmed, defensive, or off balance.
All these responses are natural and reasonable; in some cases they are unavoidable. The solution isn’t to pretend you don’t have them. It’s to recognize what’s happening and learn how to derive benefit from feedback even when it sets off one or more of your triggers.
Six Steps to Becoming a Better Receiver
Taking feedback well is a process of sorting and filtering. You need to understand the other person’s point of view, try on ideas that may at first seem a poor fit, and experiment with different ways of doing things. You also need to discard or shelve critiques that are genuinely misdirected or are not helpful right away. But it’s nearly impossible to do any of those things from inside a triggered response. Instead of ushering you into a nuanced conversation that will help you learn, your triggers prime you to reject, counterattack, or withdraw.
The six steps below will keep you from throwing valuable feedback onto the discard pile or—just as damaging—accepting and acting on comments that you would be better off disregarding. They are presented as advice to the receiver. But, of course, understanding the challenges of receiving feedback helps the giver to be more effective too.
1. Know your tendencies
You’ve been getting feedback all your life, so there are no doubt patterns in how you respond. Do you defend yourself on the facts (“This is plain wrong”), argue about the method of delivery (“You’re really doing this by e-mail?”), or strike back (“You, of all people?”)? Do you smile on the outside but seethe on the inside? Do you get teary or filled with righteous indignation? And what role does the passage of time play? Do you tend to reject feedback in the moment and then step back and consider it over time? Do you accept it all immediately but later decide it’s not valid? Do you agree with it intellectually but have trouble changing your behavior?
When Michael, an advertising executive, hears his boss make an offhand joke about his lack of professionalism, it hits him like a sledgehammer. “I’m flooded with shame,” he told us, “and all my failings rush to mind, as if I’m Googling ‘things wrong with me’ and getting 1.2 million hits, with sponsored ads from my father and my ex. In this state it’s hard to see the feedback at ‘actual size.’” But now that Michael understands his standard operating procedure, he’s able to make better choices about where to go from there: “I can reassure myself that I’m exaggerating, and usually after I sleep on it, I’m in a better place to figure out whether there’s something I can learn.”
2. Disentangle the “what” from the “who”
If the feedback is on target and the advice is wise, it shouldn’t matter who delivers it. But it does. When a relationship trigger is activated, entwining the content of comments with your feelings about the giver (or about how, when, or where she delivered the comments), learning is short-circuited. To keep that from happening, you have to work to separate the message from the messenger and then consider both.
Janet, a chemist and a team leader at a pharmaceutical company, received glowing comments from her peers and superiors during her 360-degree review but was surprised by the negative feedback she got from her direct reports. She immediately concluded that the problem was theirs: “I have high standards, and some of them can’t handle that,” she remembers thinking. “They aren’t used to someone holding their feet to the fire.” In this way, she changed the subject from her management style to her subordinates’ competence, preventing her from learning something important about the impact she had on others.
When you set aside snap judgments and explore where feedback is coming from and where it’s going, you enter into a rich conversation.
Eventually the penny dropped, Janet says. “I came to see that whether it was their performance problem or my leadership problem, those were not mutually exclusive issues, and both were worth solving.” She was able to disentangle the issues and talk to her team about both. Wisely, she began the conversation with their feedback to her, asking, “What am I doing that’s making things tough? What would improve the situation?”
3. Sort toward coaching
Some feedback is evaluative (“Your rating is a 4”); some is coaching (“Here’s how you can improve”). Everyone needs both. Evaluations tell you where you stand, what to expect, and what is expected of you. Coaching allows you to learn and improve and helps you play at a higher level.
It’s not always easy to distinguish one from the other. When a board member phoned James to suggest that he start the next quarter’s CFO presentation with analyst predictions rather than internal projections, was that intended as a helpful suggestion, or was it a veiled criticism of his usual approach? When in doubt, people tend to assume the worst and to put even well-intentioned coaching into the evaluation bin. Feeling judged is likely to set off your identity triggers, and the resulting anxiety can drown out the opportunity to learn. So whenever possible, sort toward coaching. Work to hear feedback as potentially valuable advice from a fresh perspective rather than as an indictment of how you’ve done things in the past. When James took that approach, “the suggestion became less emotionally loaded,” he says. “I decided to hear it as simply an indication of how that board member might more easily digest quarterly information.”
4. Unpack the feedback
Often it’s not immediately clear whether feedback is valid and useful. So before you accept or reject it, do some analysis to better understand it.
Here’s a hypothetical example. Kara, who’s in sales, is told by Johann, an experienced colleague, that she needs to “be more assertive.” Her reaction might be to reject his advice (“I think I’m pretty assertive already”). Or she might acquiesce (“I really do need to step it up”). But before she decides what to do, she needs to understand what he really means. Does he think she should speak up more often, or just with greater conviction? Should she smile more, or less? Have the confidence to admit she doesn’t know something, or the confidence to pretend she does?
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Even the simple advice to “be more assertive” comes from a complex set of observations and judgments that Johann has made while watching Kara in meetings and with customers. Kara needs to dig into the general suggestion and find out what in particular prompted it. What did Johann see her do or fail to do? What did he expect, and what is he worried about? In other words, where is the feedback coming from?
Kara also needs to know where the feedback is going—exactly what Johann wants her to do differently and why. After a clarifying discussion, she might agree that she is less assertive than others on the sales floor but disagree with the idea that she should change. If all her sales heroes are quiet, humble, and deeply curious about customers’ needs, Kara’s view of what it means to be good at sales might look and sound very different from Johann’s Glengarry Glen Ross ideal.
When you set aside snap judgments and take time to explore where feedback is coming from and where it’s going, you can enter into a rich, informative conversation about perceived best practices—whether you decide to take the advice or not.
5. Ask for just one thing
Feedback is less likely to set off your emotional triggers if you request it and direct it. So don’t wait until your annual performance review. Find opportunities to get bite-size pieces of coaching from a variety of people throughout the year. Don’t invite criticism with a big, unfocused question like “Do you have any feedback for me?” Make the process more manageable by asking a colleague, a boss, or a direct report, “What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?” That person may name the first behavior that comes to mind or the most important one on his or her list. Either way, you’ll get concrete information and can tease out more specifics at your own pace.
Roberto, a fund manager at a financial services firm, found his 360-degree review process overwhelming and confusing. “Eighteen pages of charts and graphs and no ability to have follow-up conversations to clarify the feedback was frustrating,” he says, adding that it also left him feeling awkward around his colleagues.
Now Roberto taps two or three people each quarter to ask for one thing he might work on. “They don’t offer the same things, but over time I hear themes, and that gives me a good sense of where my growth edge lies,” he says. “And I have really good conversations—with my boss, with my team, even with peers where there’s some friction in the relationship. They’re happy to tell me one thing to change, and often they’re right. It does help us work more smoothly together.”
Research has shown that those who explicitly seek critical feedback (that is, who are not just fishing for praise) tend to get higher performance ratings. Why? Mainly, we think, because someone who’s asking for coaching is more likely to take what is said to heart and genuinely improve. But also because when you ask for feedback, you not only find out how others see you, you also influence how they see you. Soliciting constructive criticism communicates humility, respect, passion for excellence, and confidence, all in one go.
6. Engage in small experiments
After you’ve worked to solicit and understand feedback, it may still be hard to discern which bits of advice will help you and which ones won’t. We suggest designing small experiments to find out. Even though you may doubt that a suggestion will be useful, if the downside risk is small and the upside potential is large, it’s worth a try. James, the CFO we discussed earlier, decided to take the board member’s advice for the next presentation and see what happened. Some directors were pleased with the change, but the shift in format prompted others to offer suggestions of their own. Today James reverse-engineers his presentations to meet board members’ current top-of-mind concerns. He sends out an e-mail a week beforehand asking for any burning questions, and either front-loads his talk with answers to them or signals at the start that he will get to them later on. “It’s a little more challenging to prepare for but actually much easier to give,” he says. “I spend less time fielding unexpected questions, which was the hardest part of the job.”
That’s an example worth following. When someone gives you advice, test it out. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, you can try again, tweak your approach, or decide to end the experiment.Criticism is never easy to take. Even when you know that it’s essential to your development and you trust that the person delivering it wants you to succeed, it can activate psychological triggers. You might feel misjudged, ill-used, and sometimes threatened to your very core.
Your growth depends on your ability to pull value from criticism in spite of your natural responses and on your willingness to seek out even more advice and coaching from bosses, peers, and subordinates. They may be good or bad at providing it, or they may have little time for it—but you are the most important factor in your own development. If you’re determined to learn from whatever feedback you get, no one can stop you.
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